Director: Barry Jenkins Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King Running Time: 117 minutes
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
The words of James Baldwin, from a character that sadly knows that plenty have had to look at someone they love through glass, or through some restriction or another, few, if any, deserving to have their full hearts clutched by oppressive fists. As a writer who felt even harder than he thought and had too many of his own restrictions, it’s hard to blame the writer for his frustrations that ignored that pathos. Writing about the cinema of his time that aimed to show the black experience, socially active author Baldwin only ever found it inadequate. Their feel-good narratives rang false, tripping gracelessly over themselves to reassure and reframe for guiltily ignorant, or ignorantly guilty, white audiences. We can’t speak for Baldwin, but in adapting his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has clearly and skillfully endeavoured to present a lived experience that is genuine, lives that feel real, and a lush love story that is all the more enriched by that effort to be genuine.
Beale Street is told through the eyes of Tish, an introspective but steely nineteen year old in love with Fonny, a sculptor she has known since childhood and the soon to be father of her child. They are set to begin a life together, but Fonny is accused of rape and must stew in prison while their families attempt to clear his name. The film flows seamlessly back and forth between joyful and sad, between Fonny courting Tish and Tish fighting to save him, between them planning a future together and battling to fight off the crushing feeling of hopelessness that their situation has put them in. Love can make you feel that the world is a bright, beautiful place. Those who have been through similar struggles to the young leads become all too aware that the world is harsh and dark and that love, where you can find it, is the light through it not of it.
In this presentation of romance, where passion and sadness are woven so tightly together, Barry Jenkins is the perfect filmmaker for the job. His intimate style roots us in the feelings Tish and Fonny are going through, his camera lingering longingly as they stroll through the city together, holding unblinkingly in close ups that force us to take them both in. These two characters, brought to life by KiKi Laine and Stephan James, are sensitive souls. They feel things very deeply, and we are forced to look at them as they might look at each other. As they’re falling for each other, its difficult not to get swept along with them, Nicholas Britell’s chopped-jazz score and the rich cinematography easing us along a road we are all to happy to follow Laine and James’ subtle, sweet, tentative, sensuous performances down. When these moments are cut off by flashes to Fonny in prison – his broken condition is all the more distressing since we’ve seen him so full. The moments of sadness in the film are unflinching, Beale Street a romance too smart to be romanticised. The sadness that is presented is to be recognised rather than pitied, felt not felt for. Jenkins, keenly understanding the world of this story, avoids playing up to a crocodile tear audience. In his confinement, Fonny reacts in certain moments with an ugliness that is understandable but not ignored. The film’s women characters are adamant throughout their efforts to clear . This is not grief porn to be tutted ruefully at, its sadness is as real as its happiness, not a sadness to be grateful never to have had, or to be responsible for. Its leads – and having been so immersed in them, the audience – are confronted. Love brought them here. If they trusted love this far, they can’t panic now, so nor should we. The harshness of their situation is presented honestly enough to make the optimism equally believable. Playing Tish’s mother, Regina King knows that harshness and clings to that optimism with determination. She’s the standout in the cast, carrying key emotional moments so complexly, balancing them as seamlessly in subtle scenes where she handles revealing Tish’s pregnancy as she does in bigger moments like her character’s crucial journey to Puerto Rico on Fonny’s behalf, a self-contained narrative in itself at a critical point in the film’s run time that King carries through exceptionally.
The richness of the images, alongside the characters so present in the frame, deepens the viewing experience. The vivid colours and lighting are always evocative, whether it’s the warmness of Tish’s home – reflecting how her family treats her or contrasting the ugly scene that plays out when Fonny’s family show up, or the harsh glaring uncertainty in Puerto Rico versus the softer, hopeful bright shining through the wide windows when Tish and Fonny find a ray of hope home-hunting. As with Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton works with Jenkins to make images as lyrical as the screenplay and score; Technicolour domestic romance, like the Sirk films contemporary to this story’s time period. That these kinds of characters would not have been looked at by cameras in this way back then is probably not lost on the director.
There is always room, in Hollywood more than most places, on Valentine’s Day more than most times, for schmaltz. Through melodrama we’re given an overblown presentation of a nugget of truth; in spotting that nugget we appreciate it all the more, and through being overblown the presentation shields us from the truth’s harsher aspects. With Baldwin’s words as a strong blueprint, Jenkins and his team present a melodrama that doesn’t shy from that harshness, blending Hollywood romance and the blues, maybe the most profound and influential American artforms, into something wonderful together. Not a tragic love story, but the interjection of tragedy around a love story that is ultimately optimistic; tangible, touchable, deeply experienced range of sensations, intuitions and deep connections, that persists and strives in spite of the barriers that intrude upon it. Love, looked at through glass. Through that glass, Tish and Fonny still see each other. In close up, towards us, they do not look away. Gorgeously framed, thoughtfully spoken, enlightening to head and heart; If Beale Street Could Talk is a film worthy of receiving the love put into it.(5 / 5)