Review: If Beale Street Could Talk7 February 2019
Fonny and Tish are in love. The two characters, played by Stefan James and Kiki Layne respectively, drive the entirety of If Beale Street Could Talk with their love for each other, for those around them, from those around them, and for the unborn child whose future they are fighting for. Barry Jenkins, in adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, has created a film that speaks to the power of love as a unifying force, love as a shield, as a gift, as a source of meaning, as something to believe in – as something that means everything when you have nothing else. That sounds saccharine (and more than a little pretentious), but this is not a film that ignores the harsh realities of the world. Where Moonlight saw love hindered by toxic masculinity, Beale Street pits love against institutionalised racism. The movie grapples (as Baldwin did) with two equally passionate sentiments: balancing the desire to celebrate romance, sensuality, and connection with searing, powerful social criticism. It’s really, really good.
Tish and Fonny live in Harlem, New York City, in the 1970s. When a racist cop (Ed Skrein) arrests Fonny for a rape he couldn’t possibly have committed, Tish is left on her own. The film follows her desperate struggle to clear his name before she gives birth to their baby, with the support of her beautiful family as they rally around the young couple. Jenkins is pitting the deep, abiding love of his characters against the crushing weight of rampant racial discrimination and social inequality, and it’s heartbreaking to see these warm, kind-hearted people struggle against a system that denies them the right to live a peaceful life. “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit”, Tish narrates, “…and everything they saw around them proved it.” It’s often the little details of her life that hit us the hardest throughout Beale Street. Tish and her mother show no surprise when their lawyer tells them her testimony in court won’t count for anything. She can do nothing but watch as Fonny is threatened by a cop for being aggressive toward a man harassing her. She recounts to the viewer that in her job as a perfume sales rep, a white man will never sample the scents on himself: always, he will take her hand, bring it to his nose, and “hold it there for a lifetime”. We spend enough time with Tish to see how these racially-specific experiences are a part of her world. These moments are powerful because Jenkins crafts them with the same delicate sensitivity that he approaches the rest of the film – always balancing the competing urges of searing anger at widespread injustice, and deep, intimate love for all that is good.
Nowhere is this tender quality of Beale Street clearer than in its score. Nicholas Britell, who also composed scores for Moonlight, The Big Short, and this year’s Vice, uses elegant strings and distinctive winds to create an expansive musical landscape – but not always in the traditional way. Britell’s score plays with these elements mostly through a jazz register, giving that genre’s unique chord progressions to his cello section. The effect this produces is a warm familiarity with the classic film-score sounds, with an injection of Harlem Jazz energy – it’s a great fit for Beale Street, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Equally exquisite is the work of cinematographer James Laxton. The guy has shot all three of Barry Jenkins’ feature films, and each one has this same tactile visual sense, the same predilection for beautiful, extended close-ups: shots that let you just take in the stunning imagery before you. Laxton turns 1970s working-class Harlem – the kind of place you’d think of as run-down, dirty, and depressing – into this lush, striking landscape, without ever sacrificing its unique character.
What really brings Beale Street’s setting to life, however, is the brilliantly-realised collection of characters that live within it. This is a movie with an incredibly strong sense of community. It’s not always smiles and rainbows – one of the film’s best scenes is a confrontation between Tish and Fonny’s families after the news gets out that the couple are having a child – but these feel like real people, and that’s way harder to pull off than you’d think. It helps that Jenkins’ cast is fantastic, too. In the lead roles, Layne and James are both enormously sympathetic, but I was really struck by the supporting cast. It’s here that you’ll find the film’s most recognisable faces, to whom Jenkins has cleverly chosen to give small, yet very important roles.
For example, take when Bryan Tyree Henry (who’s having a pretty incredible year, with this, Widows, Atlanta, and Into the Spider-Verse) shows up in the middle of the film, and for 15 minutes, the movie is his. He plays Daniel, an old friend of Fonny’s and a key witness in proving his innocence – he’s also a guy who’s done the whole imprisonment-while-innocent thing, and his quiet, dire assurance of the horror of that experience for a black person in a racist system is absolutely haunting.
Or take when Dave Franco shows up (in a Yarmulke!). His character, Levy, is the only white landlord who sees no reason why Tish and Fonny’s race should be a factor in whether he lets them his property – “not a white saviour,” said Jenkins at a Toronto Film Festival Q&A, but just “a dude who can connect to another person”. Franco is great here – I only knew the guy for the performances he gave in films like 21 Jump Street and Now You See Me, and I was stunned by Levy’s gentle warmth. When asked why he doesn’t care that the couple are black, he simply says, “Guess I’m my mother’s son,” and the way he draws on that maternal love reminds you of how easy it would be for other privileged people in the film to practice that same kind of empathy.
Another mother – Tish’s, played by Regina King – commands a huge part of the movie. King deserves all the awards season hype she’s been getting. Her performance is so rich – my experiences couldn’t be further from those of her character, but I saw this woman’s love, her pain, and her strength in every moment of King’s portrayal of her. Her Oscar nomination is deeply deserved, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she took home the win.
Beale Street got three Oscar nods – Best Supporting Actress for Regina King, Original Score for Nicholas Britell, and Adapted Screenplay for Barry Jenkins. The fact it missed out on a Best Picture nomination, when only eight out of a potential ten films were nominated, and two of those films were Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, is pretty baffling to me. This is a film rich in emotion, beautiful craftsmanship, and social relevance. A film that to my mind did everything it set out to do. This is the kind of thing the industry needs to reward, or at the very least to acknowledge – I know I’m going to spend a lot of the rest of this awards season banging on about If Beale Street Could Talk to anyone who’ll listen. Go see it.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas from Valentine’s Day.