If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins might just be the best director for romances today. That might not be the conventional thing one might hear from the Moonlight Oscar-winner, but it’s been the most powerful thing in his last two films. His most recent film only confirms this theory as the entire plot revolves around the love story of two characters.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the adaptation of the beloved James Baldwin novel that was published in 1974. The film takes place the same year and follows Tish (Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James), two young adults deeply in love, living in New York. The film jumps back and forth in time, ranging from the growing romance between the two and the navigation of troubles later as Tish becomes pregnant and Fonny unjustly imprisoned.
As said before, this story’s plot revolves and hinges around the romance of Fonny and Tish, and Jenkins is able to construct a believable relationship between the two with his delicate hand. The sensation of being in love and feeling the only two people in the world is subtly injected here by having many of the scenes between Fonny and Tish feature close-ups of them, not letting us see if there are other people around. And in fact in the wide-shots of their scenes there will be one or two people present at most. There are also centered close-ups of characters’ faces whenever Fonny or Tish glance at each other, these shots are slowed down so that the whole world seems to stop when they are looking at each others eyes. Even the love scenes, which were handled with a caring and poetic hand in Moonlight, are as effective in Beale Street. Many Hollywood films and even independent flicks handle sex scenes in very sensual and almost pornographic way; Jenkins makes these scenes seem truly intimate, not exploiting the physiques of his actors, and making the act seem delicate and tender instead.
While the story of Beale Street revolves around an array of characters, our main eyes into this world is Tish, and while Lane proves to be an adept performer under Jenkins’ direction, the magnitude of the film and story demanded something more. Don’t get me wrong, Lane does a great job (this being her first film role) however, she is still very green and one can see that she acts her role externally, miming the movements, but not internalizing her character. For many veteran and acclaimed actors, one can see their character not only in their gestures and movements, but in their eyes as well. Lane misses that special hint, and thus doesn’t give the film the final push to have Beale Street be truly complete. The one actress that does manage to transmit the full embodiment of her character in this film is Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother and gives the performance of her career, stealing the spotlight in every scene she’s in. King even made me wonder what a Beale Street with her in the lead role would have looked like, a good make-up department is all she needed.
Beale Street was a cry of protest from Baldwin in the 1970s against the systemic racism that falsely imprisoned black men back then. Unfortunately, this film seems extremely contemporary today as well, in fact nothing seems to have changed, if anything it has gotten worse. Baldwin was able to show us the hardships of being black with more subtle vignettes as well (apart from the false imprisonment). In one such snapshot Fonny and Tish are looking for a new apartment to live in, they’ve been turned down multiple times for the color of their skin. When the couple are finally shown an apartment and offered it by the landlord (played in a cameo by Dave Franco), they are quizzical, asking what is the catch? They are incredulous to the fact that someone would not try and screw them over or exploit them in some way. Another scene, in which Tish’s mother has to try and convince someone in order to free Fonny, she puts on a wig of more Westernized straight hair in order to seem more appealing, thinking her natural hair would scare or intimidate people.
The film is extremely colorful, showing an incredibly dignity to these characters despite their many hardships, even the jail scenes are surrounded by beautiful yellow tiles. The story doesn’t ask for your pity, only your awareness. Baldwin’s prose is beautifully adapted by Jenkins, maintaining the subtle vignettes of racism as well as the pivotal romance at its core. The supporting cast is strong, as are the leads, but Kiki Lane as the protagonist doesn’t exploit the role as much as it should be. Nevertheless, If Beale Street Could Talk is a powerful follow-up to Moonlight for Jenkins, and a beautiful standalone feature on its own.