If Beale Street Could Talk: Reviewed
By Matt Marth
If Beale Street Could Talk opens with an overhead shot of a couple holding hands, walking unhurriedly down a quiet path. To their left is an imposing wall of worn-out limestone, hiding the sprawling city of New York behind it. To their right are overwhelmingly lush trees, whose branches spill lazily over the sidewalk. The feeling evoked by this first scene should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in an urban area before. The green space of a good city park is a small Eden, freely providing a brief respite from the daily grind. The city takes its toll if you don’t find the time to sit on a bench, marvel at squirrels, and exist oblivious to society’s demands of you every once in a while. Beale Street, director Barry Jenkins’ full-length follow-up to Oscar-winner Moonlight, is not really about parks or cities, but it is about making space for beauty and meaning in a world actively trying to keep you from doing so.
The movie is based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same title. It centers on Tish, a black nineteen year-old Harlemite and her fiancé, Alonzo, or “Fonny” as she calls him, who she’s known since childhood. The plot unfolds with the help of several flashbacks and Tish’s narration, showing how the two fell in love on subway rides and in Mexican restaurants across Manhattan. Despite the budding, almost transcendent love between the two, they face the harsh realities of living as black people in the United States. Fonny gets falsely accused of rape, and outside of rosy flashbacks, he is only able to gaze longingly at Tish through the suffocating plexiglass of the prison visiting room as he awaits trial. In an utterly heartbreaking scene, Tish tells Fonny she is pregnant through the prison phone and both their faces become kaleidoscopes of joy, longing, and despair.
If Beale Street Could Talk exists in this tension between profound love and deep pain, wrought by societal brokenness. The film takes place at the dawn of mass incarceration, and while it is a deeply personal and particular narrative about a single family, the story will feel all too familiar to the countless families that have been and continue to be torn apart by a racist criminal justice system. At multiple points throughout the story, Jenkins flashes archival black and white photos of police brutality on the screen, reminders of the dark realities this film is based on.
In the face of the inescapable white supremacy of American society, the protagonists of Beale Street find solace in one another. In an early scene where Tish tells her family that she’s pregnant, the unconditional love that pours out of her parents and her sister feels almost tangible, like you could grab it out of the air and clutch it for warmth. At several points throughout the movie, the characters gaze longingly straight into the camera, roping the audience into the uneasy space between love and pain.
Beale Street is a movie of deep feeling, both emotionally and in a more literal sense, through its rich sensuality. The complicated beauty of new life and of love is underlined by the rich color of Tish and Fonny’s outfits and the vibrant Harlem streets they traipse across. Nicholas Britell’s resplendent score beautifully complements understated but powerful performances from leads Kiki Layne and Stephan James.
At times the film feels as though it is almost too beautiful, as if the sharp cinematography and idealized Harlem streets keep us from pondering the debilitating effects of racism for too long. It doesn’t really feel like the real world. I suppose being too beautiful to feel real is not the worst problem for a movie to have. And with Beale Street, Jenkins doesn’t seem to be trying to provide a fully realistic or factual account of urban poverty or the brutality of the prison system. And he doesn’t have to. By logging onto Twitter or just listening to the lived experiences of black people, it’s not hard to get a sense of the very real effects of a criminal justice system predicated on anti-blackness. IfBeale Street Could Talk is a portrait of the resilience that takes place in the cracks of this brokenness. It is a bold statement on the ability of humanity to find meaning and to find love in spite of the world.