The opening scene of If Beale Street Could Talk is a simple one. The camera pans over a couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), clearly in love as they embrace and kiss. It sets the tone for the camera movement, the visual style, and the use of frequent close-ups to come. But most importantly, the scene is bittersweet as its purpose becomes evident: to convey how tragic, how senseless, it is for two lovers to be separated by an act of cruelty. Fonny is to be framed for a horrendous crime by a white policeman.
If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same time, then travels to a later time, a time where Fonny is separated from Tish by a sheet of glass during prison visitation. Though the couple now exist separately as occupants of two different worlds, the connection between these two people is felt profoundly. Even more so when Tish informs Fonny that they are going to have a baby, setting off a sequence of events by the couple’s families to attempt to prove Fonny’s innocence before the baby is born.
Though Layne and Stefan only share one leading role between the two of them prior to their casting in If Beale Street Could Talk, the pair are cast perfectly. In a film with sadness, grief, but also great love and happiness, it is seen early in the film how remarkable the pair is able to act in scenes that rely primarily on using their expressions rather than delivery of dialogue. Fonny in particular has a range of qualities to express- he passes from an assured lover to a man in fear to a loving father, accepting of the misfortune that ultimately befalls him and his family. Together, their on-screen romance is compelling. Fonny’s movement is delicately attentive of Tish despite his large physical frame, and the more reserved Tish finds strength and confidence through her love for Fonny.
Apart from the lead actors, Tish and Fonny’s families are a sight to behold when Tish announces that she is pregnant. The two families, very different from one another in religious belief and (perceived) standards of etiquette, engage in a battle of words that make you alternate between laughing and wincing at how barbed and unrestrained the insults fly (because, after all, this is family). Sharp dialogue and a refusal to mince words are also strengths of If Beale Street Could Talk, portions of the script lifted straight from the pages of Baldwin’s text.
As such, Jenkins’s adaptation isn’t merely faithful to its source material: it’s reverent. At the Q&A following the screening I attended, Jenkins said that Baldwin had two voices within his writing, one of love and one of social critique. Given Jenkins’s immense success in Moonlight in expressing these exact two voices, it comes at no surprise that Jenkins would direct an adaptation of Baldwin’s writing. Jenkins’s film shares the structure of Baldwin’s novel as Jenkins frequently travels forward and backwards in time to provide more context to the love story of Tish and Fonny as well as to depict African American life in 1970s Harlem.
If Beale Street Could Talk has a clear eye on the time as seen in its exploration of the theme of gender. The men and women of Tish and Fonny’s families operate in entirely separate spheres while responding to Fonny’s crisis while Fonny is emasculated throughout his experiences as an African American and his time in prison. Prior to Fonny’s wrongful arrest, Tish is harassed by a white man at the grocery store. Fonny comes to her protection, but not without capturing the attention of a white policeman. Tish is able to help negotiate with the officer to ensure that Fonny is not taken away, but Fonny is livid in his perceived inability to protect her without experiencing the effects of racism, in addition to having to rely on Tish to protect him from arrest.
While exploring the differences between the genders, Jenkins also explores family. Though masculinity is central to the pride of men in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins portrays nuance and sensitivity within the men of the film. A particularly touching scene of the film shows Tish’s father holding her as she cries late into her pregnancy, conveying tragedy in that Fonny can’t hold Tish himself and may not be able to become the father figure he aspires to be for his child if his innocence cannot be proven in time.
As anyone can tell, Barry Jenkins is very much a humanist and has a deep love for each of his characters, If Beale Street Could Talk firmly rivaling the subtle depth of character that we saw two years ago in Moonlight. Beale Street shares the lush visual style of Moonlight, yet Jenkins expands his use of music to an even greater extent than past exhibited in the carefully chosen soundtrack underscoring the final act of Moonlight. Music guides the story of If Beale Street Could Talk from start to finish, combining with fluid camerawork to craft a mesmerizing love story that harkens back to the alluring score and sensations of Todd Haynes’s Carol.
Even with the shared commonalities between If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight, the former feels very much so a departure- Jenkins isn’t trying to make the same film twice. Despite the fact that the latter is a coming of age story spanning decades in scope, Moonlight feels like a much ‘smaller’ film, in part because of how deeply personal and intimate Chiron’s story was. If Beale Street Could Talk, on the other hand, isn’t purely a story about two people and their love: it is a story about African American people and their humanity.
A scene during a flashback within If Beale Street Could Talk features a friend of Fonny’s, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry– “Paper Boi” in FX’s Atlanta), recalling time spent in prison during a discussion with Fonny. The scene is hypnotic as the camera glides slowly across Carty’s face in the smoke-drenched room as he speaks not of specific horror stories within prison, but rather of the fear that racists instilled in him and of the control they held over him during his trial and incarceration.
Throughout If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins includes a number of fourth wall breaking shots of characters looking at the camera that beg you to empathize with their faces, and moreover, their persons. Before seeing If Beale Street Could Talk, I was rather curious why Jenkins did not cast greater known actors as the leads in his film. In hindsight, I think that by casting lesser known actors Jenkins enables us to empathize with the characters as if they were real-life people rather than as actors playing a role. Jenkins also experiments in his use of black-and-white photographs that, along with Tish’s narration of the film, help document African American life throughout this period in American history.
While greatly commendable for its passion and ambition, If Beale Street Could Talk may also be held back by just how much passion is evident on-screen, both in visual style and in romance. The film is prone to teeter into melodrama and away from the gritty realism of Baldwin’s novel because of how expressively the film is shot. The love story of Tish and Fonny feels at times not romantic, but rather voyeuristic. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to feel admiration for the way that Jenkins approaches Tish and Fonny’s story and hard not to be drawn in by the immersiveness of If Beale Street Could Talk.