ALTERNATE TAKE: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) by Barry Jenkins
Review by Courtney Anderson
I don’t think I’ll get used to seeing a Barry Jenkins film.
The first Barry Jenkins film I ever watched was Moonlight. Moonlight stole the air out of my lungs, it was so beautiful. Jenkins had painstakingly crafted an introspective tale of a gay, Black man named Chiron who grows up in Miami in the late 80s. Chiron’s story is told with an amazing amount of care and empathy. I had really never seen a film so delicate yet impactful. I felt that Jenkins not only loved Chiron as a character, he loved all the people like Chiron: Black people who have been pushed to the margins of society.
I got that same loving feeling while watching If Beale Street Could Talk. Everything about the film shows that Barry Jenkins’ ultimate goal is to show how much he loves these characters and the Black people who inspired them. And he picked the perfect story to show that love.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about a Black young couple whose life is interrupted by insidious racism. 19-year-old Tish and 21-year-old Fonny are in love, and they have been in love since they were children. They’ve decided that they want to move into their own apartment and start a life together. Tish’s family — her mother Sharon (Golden Globe winner Regina King), her father Joe (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) — supports them, as they have always taken care of Fonny. There is a lot of intimacy and care expressed between this couple and their family.
They love him. And Jenkins wants us to love him, too. You can tell by the way the camera lingers on Fonny’s face and on his eyes. Jenkins has become pretty famous for having his actors look directly into the camera in his work, and there’s quite a bit of intense eye contact in Beale Street. Kiki Layne and Stephen James’s both have such beautifully expressive eyes, and they look at each other--and the audience--as if they believe the other hung the moon and stars. James Laxton’s cinematography casts such a soft, warm, glowing light on Fonny and Tish.
When you pair that cinematography with Nicholas Britell's score, you get a full picture of a couple who are in the middle of love. Songs like “Eden” and “Agape” are equal parts intense and tender, rising and swelling and ebbing and flowing. The music sounds like a new romance, one full of hope, trepidation, excitement, anxiety.
You can't help but to feel that same softness towards this couple. You're rooting for Tish and Fonny. And that makes what happens to them all the more painful.
In Beale Street, a racist white cop frames Fonny for rape. This cop — Officer Bell — has had it out for Fonny ever since he protected Tish from a white man who sexually harassed her in a corner store. Tish and the store's female, Italian owner had protected Fonny from Officer Bell that fateful night, and Officer Bell decided that that wasn't going to fly.
The victim, a young, Puerto-Rican single mother called Victoria, is eventually instructed to pick Fonny out of a lineup. Now, Fonny is in jail. And Tish and her family have to get him out. To make matters worse, Tish is pregnant.
If the technical aspects of the film don’t help you understand how much love is being poured into Fonny, then the actions the characters take on his behalf will. Fonny’s own mother and sisters may not care about him--as evidenced by a scene where Tish announces her pregnant to them and his mother says some truly awful things to her--but Sharon, Joe and Ernestine sure do.
Ernestine works over time to find legal counsel for Fonny. Joe and Fonny’s father Frank begin stealing from their jobs and selling the stolen goods to raise money for Fonny’s bail. And Sharon travels all the way to Puerto Rico to convince Victoria to recant her coerced testimony. Meanwhile, Tish keeps pushing herself to work at the perfume counter, even as she gets bigger and more exhausted. They’re working as hard as they can to free Fonny. And Fonny is working as hard as he can to stay strong and keep as brave a face as possible for Tish and his growing baby. This is a portrait of a family willing to do whatever it takes to protect someone they love.
And everyone in this cast seems to truly understand their role in bring this portrait to life. Kiki and Stephan fully embody these young characters who are forced to grow up. Kiki perfectly portrays Tish’s youth and resilience while Stephan sells Fonny as a sensitive artist who is full of light. Regina King’s Sharon is at turns tenacious and vulnerable, and King puts her entire soul into Sharon. It’s no wonder King’s winning awards, and I hope she continues to win. Colman Domingo brings so much warmth to Joseph that he made me wish everyone had a father like him. And Teyonah Parris was just bad ass as Ernestine. She’s the sister I desperately want, but probably don’t deserve. Everyone was fully on-board with this story and it shows.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jenkins chose this particular story to tell as a follow-up to Moonlight. Much like Moonlight, Beale Street is equally rooted in faith and the jarring reality of oppression. In November, Jenkins gave an interview for the twelfth episode of a podcast called “The Spectrum Lounge,” hosted by critic and writer Rebecca Theodore-Vachon. During the interview, Jenkins talked about how he needed to find a balance between the romance of the story and the frustration and anger the story stirs.
Jenkins states, “In making the film, it was imperative upon me to leave the viewer with that same feeling. You should leave with a sense of hope and optimism, and a belief in the power of love . . . but you should also feel a bitter taste in your mouth.”
He expresses a similar sentiment in a December interview with The Atlantic titled “How Barry Jenkins Turned His James Baldwin Obsession Into His Next Movie.”
“If it’s all anger, all the time, then to me that’s dehumanizing in a certain way,” Jenkins says. “ . . . But what moved me about the novel was that anger never completely consumed or overwhelmed the love, the community, the family. For me to have made it from a point of Fuck this, fuck everything, that would have almost—tainted is the wrong word, but it would have affected the depictions of their love.”
Jenkins definitely accomplished his mission with Beale Street. This film is gorgeous and very moving. It also ends on a note that may be very frustrating and disheartening for audiences, particularly viewers who are painfully aware of mass incarceration and how Black people are disportionately targeted by a deeply unfair legal system. Although, I have to say that I found the film’s ending far less chilling than the novel’s ending. To avoid spoiling either, I’ll just say that Jenkins makes a pretty drastic change that I am still wrestling with.
Honestly, I’m still wrestling with the story as a whole, one that is told with such intensity and intimacy that it’s almost hard to watch. It’s extremely real, real in a way that doesn’t allow you to simply pretend that it can be forgotten because it’s “fictional.” Fonny is a real man. Tish is a real woman. And her family is a real family. And Barry Jenkins very clearly loves all of them.
Like I said, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching a Barry Jenkins film. Or reading a James Baldwin novel, for that matter.