The Things We Carry
By Michael Koresky
If Beale Street Could Talk
Dir. Barry Jenkins, U.S., Annapurna Pictures
Life exquisitely pours forth out of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a film that seems to move on unceasing currents of emotion, of love and pain, of big heartaches and small joys, of revelations and disillusionments. An uncommonly adept orchestrator of sentiment and mood, Jenkins unites this all in one mellifluous wave, even as his new film at times seems constructed of different sized and shaped parts. Jenkins lets his James Baldwin adaptation breathe in ways unusual to American film. The director has called it a film modeled on the blues, and you can feel its rhythms and lamentations, but the film also feels musical in how its sensations and narrative lines overlap. Jenkins creates unexpected harmonies out of pain and melancholy. His movies are about people who must live in a world that betrays and disappoints them, simultaneously enveloped and rejected by it.
There’s a fervid yet lonely kind of beauty evident from the first shot, an overhead angle of the film’s fresh-as-spring-daisies main characters, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old sculptor Fonny (Stephan James), as they stroll down the lovers’ lanes of New York City’s outskirts. With their hushed tones, dewy-eyed mutual gazes, and breathy pauses, these good-souled innocents draw us physically into Jenkins’s evocation of Baldwin’s Harlem of the 1970s. The film is told out of chronology, allowing the viewer to drink in moments rather than anticipate narrative beats. After that opening idyllic image, we learn that Fonny is in prison and Tish is telling him, from behind glass, that she’s pregnant. Jenkins then backtracks to show us the circumstances that put Fonny behind bars but also to evoke the youthful love that got them here.
A work of enormous empathy and social concern, If Beale Street Could Talk puts faces to unspoken histories with clarity and compassion; yet it never feels like it’s merely bearing witness to sorrow. As with Moonlight, this is a movie that looks back at you, and not just because of the recurring images of characters looking directly into the camera lens in close-up (such images are currently being compared to similar shots by Jonathan Demme, but they’ll soon be known as Jenkins trademarks). Beale Street is all in the eyes, the flecks of disappointment that come over a young woman when she realizes her boyfriend is in danger of giving up hope after being wrongfully imprisoned; the mix of fear and fury a young man is forced to contain when confronted by one more racist white policeman; the complicated despair that washes over a mother in the moment that she realizes her long journey to clear her son’s name might have been a mission impossible, and the emasculated sadness that registers in a father’s eyes as he helplessly admits he cannot help the son who’s been branded a criminal. It’s a movie that reminds you that almost all movies are about eye lines, and that there can be nothing more beautiful in this world.
Yet Jenkins’s tactile film is also all about the way bodies look and feel next to each other. Few scenes in recent American cinema have been as intoxicatingly sexy as the flashback to Tish and Fonny’s consummation in his Greenwich Village attic apartment. Composer Nicholas Britell’s lush strings overtake the soundtrack; Fonny and Tish disrobe, and he covers up her trembling body in a gesture of kindness. Here the score fades out, and Fonny moves across the room from the bed to the turntable. As he replaces Brittell’s score, he strips to his briefs, exposing his body where she’s now concealed. He becomes one with the music and the sound of rain on the roof as he rejoins her on the bed. (Readers of Baldwin’s fiction know the author didn’t shy away from raw sexuality, so this scene feels like an apt blessing.) The tenderness and eroticism of this scene make it all the more preposterous when we find out—in a very clearly racially motivated setup—that Fonny has been accused of raping a woman named Victoria down on Orchard Street.
Tragedy is always threatening to capsize their lives, making If Beale Street Could Talk an uncommonly fragile film about the realities of mass black incarceration. During the film’s quite extraordinary centerpiece flashback, Fonny and Tish get a visit from their old neighborhood friend, Daniel, played with haunted world-weariness by Bryan Tyree Henry. As he sits in a heap at their kitchen table, Daniel describes with devastating, poetic precision his two years in prison after being falsely accused of stealing a car (he doesn’t even know how to drive), while Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton’s camera floats around the somberly lit room as though it’s one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s opium dens. The effect is a kind of mesmerizing melancholy, a plaintive wail of a broken man for a lost country. As though to save him from complete despair, Jenkins breaks his nightmare grip with a sudden cut—a literal needle drop to Miles Davis that’s like an act of grace.
Beale Street consists of many of these little ruptures, but also some big ones. An early scene unabashedly flirts with openhearted, smackdown melodrama, featuring a major blow-up between Tish’s family—her parents, Sharon and Joseph (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both superb) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris)—and Fonny’s overbearing father (Michael Beach) and short-fused holy-roller mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who have paid a visit only to be told the news about Tish’s pregnancy, a revelation that does not go well, to put it mildly. The violent tumult that results springs not from a clash between heroes and villains but from an expression of profound soul sickness, representing the sad frustrations at the ever-lengthening gap between a family’s expectations for itself and its looming realities. These parents may not be perfect, but they want what they see as the best for their children. This is also expressed later in Sharon’s desperate pilgrimage to Puerto Rico to meet with the woman who had accused her son to try and convince her to drop charges. In one of his miraculous little side-steps, Jenkins makes time for a passage showing Regina King before her motel-room mirror (looking into the camera, of course) putting on her wig and makeup with anxious precision, as she gets ready for her confrontation with Victoria. Yet all this preparation is for naught: what ensues is harrowing, an uncompromising depiction of two women’s very different agonies, brilliantly performed by King and Emily Rios as an impossible duet.
Like Baldwin’s ever-spiraling prose, the looping, circular structure of Jenkins’s film allows for these kinds of digressions; it’s a portrait of hopes dashed but love remaining, and as such feels made of stop-starts. It’s also a film that wants to make its audience internalize the specific experience of being black in America, of being a black American in New York, of being a black New Yorker in Harlem, of being a black New Yorker in Harlem in the 1970s. The film wants you to feel this in its freeze-frames, in its interstitial use of period photographs, in its long dissolves, in the way a red umbrella lights up in the rain on Minetta Lane. You feel it in the Coltrane, the Simone, the Davis. You certainly feel it in a final family tableau as calmly heartbreaking as any image in recent American film. And, of course, you feel it in the eyes.