Moonlight Director Barry Jenkins Returns With Lush James Baldwin Adaptation
DIRECTED BY BARRY JENKINS/2018
Lovers are almost always inward looking, focused only each other. It’s not a criticism to point out that when two people are enraptured with each other there’s not a lot of space for the anyone or anything else. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are such a couple, so caught up in their love with each other that they seem to exist in a world of their own making. As they walk through Harlem or ride the New York subway, everything around them falls away. There’s nothing left but their absorption in each other. It’s on one such subway ride that 19 year old Tish realizes her childhood friend, Fonny, is in love with her. She also realizes that she not only loves him in return, but that he is the most beautiful man alive. In the hands of director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton, Tish is not wrong. Fonny and Tish are both beautiful. As in his previous film Moonlight, Jenkins allows the characters to gaze directly into the camera. Looking at the tenderness in Fonny’s eyes, seeing the trust in Tish’s returning gaze, we fall in love with them just as they’ve fallen in love with each other.
But Tish and Fonny don’t exist in a world apart; not really. They live in early 70s New York and as a young black couple deal with the oppression of every day racism. Tish works at the perfume counter of a department store and squirms at the objectification of white men. Fonny struggles to find a landlord who will rent an apartment to the couple. The hints that the outside world is going to intrude in Tish and Fonny’s love story pile up, particularly in two grim and foreboding episodes. In one, Fonny is harassed by a white police officer (Ed Skrein) during an evening out with Tish. In the other, one of the most powerful scenes in If Beale Street Could Talk, Fonny and Tish are visited by Fonny’s old friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). At first Daniel seems almost a stereotype: the loud, clowning, ne’er-do-well. Over beers in Fonny’s apartment, though, he shares his experience in prison (having taken a plea for a crime he didn’t commit). There is still real terror in Daniel as he tells Fonny what prison was like, and his fear and shame casts a dreadful pall over the whole room. It’s a brief but powerhouse performance from Henry, and for the audience it raises real anxiety over what will become of Fonny.
That anxiety comes because of how Barry Jenkins has structured If Beale Street Could Talk. Like the James’ Baldwin novel on which the film is based, the narrative is non-linear, jumping back and forth as Tish, in voice over tells the story. We know from the first few minutes of the film that Fonny sits in jail, accused of a rape his didn’t commit. We also know that Tish is pregnant and that she and her family are desperately trying to clear Fonny’s name and bring him home. Tish and Fonny’s dreamy love affair is interspersed with scenes of prison visits, meetings with Fonny’s lawyer, and the efforts of family to come up with money for his defense.
If Beale Street Could Talk is anything but a legal procedural. As in Moonlight, Jenkins uses a meditative pace, lush color palette, and dreamy score (again, by Nicholas Brittel) to craft a movie of remarkable tenderness and beauty. It feels like more than a movie, somehow: like a painting, and a poem, and a jazz fugue. Jenkins is a remarkable sure-handed director and as a result If Beale Street Could Talk is a stunning piece of art. It is also a painful story of two lovers caught in the grip of unjust systems.
In the beginning of If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish and Fonny are the center of film’s universe. Their love makes them seem larger than life, almost as if they are mythical figures representing true love. In one scene the camera sweeps around Fonny as he surveys one of his sculptures. Cigarette smoke swirls around his head. The scene is almost worshipful, a beatific vision: the camera is adoring Fonny. But the scene cuts to Fonny lies in prison, increasingly battered and struggling to retain hope. In the gears of the system there is nothing special about Tish and Fonny. He is just another young black man, wrongly accused. She is just another young black mother who may have to raise her child alone. Injustice shrinks our great lovers back down to human size. Love, it turns out, may not conquer all.
If love doesn’t conquer all, the love of Tish’s parents and sister at least provides hope that there is meaning in the daily battle to care for and fight for each other. Regina King and Coleman Domingo give terrific performances as Tish’s parents. King, especially, is a vision of strength and kindness. She didn’t plan for her daughter to be umarried, pregnant, and alone at 19, but she is unshaken in her determination to do right by her daughter, the man her daughter loves, and the child who will be born into her family.
If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the finest films of 2018. It’s a film of technical brilliance (the things Jenkins and Laxton achieved with color left me stunned), but it’s also a tender and human. It’s both a passionate love story and a sadly relevant commentary on how such tender, human stories wind up crushed under the wheels of injustice. There are still too many Fonnys sitting in our prisons, and too many Tishs trying to bring them home.