Barry Jenkins’ latest is a powerful art film. I specify “art film” because, at the beginning, I was put off by its lack of naturalism. The two young stars are too quiet and stare too much; they don’t come across as real people walking the streets—a complaint I have about French art dramas too, in which the characters always seem affected and unnatural. But as the movie went on, I accepted this (to my mind) flaw and a few others (did they really think inviting Fonny’s family over for an impromptu party was going to work out?) and began to feel the beauty and pathos of a remarkable movie.
If Beale Street Could Talk
tells the story of two young people in the early 1970s, Fonny and Tish, who have fallen in love and are ready to start a life together when Fonny is framed for rape by a vengeful white New York cop. Soon Tish discovers that she’s pregnant, and the rest of the movie shows Tish’s attempts to clear his name as her pregnancy progresses. She’s helped by her father and mother, Joseph and Sharon, and Fonny’s young lawyer. Through their journey, Jenkins, who adapted James Baldwin’s novel into a screenplay, shows the myriad stresses that living in a racist society causes.
Jenkins has the gift of visual expression. It sounds funny to mention it because, well, it’s a film. But not every filmmaker creates the kind of meaning that Jenkins does through his imagery, nor has his subtlety. The most common visual motif is hands: hands held in love, hands separated by glass, hands grasped and released, hands employed in violence, hands used to subtly oppress, and hands used to work.
Jenkins is also partial to faces in profile and straight on. The movie is punctuated with Tish’s visits to Fonny in prison, where the camera focuses on each of their faces straight on. With each visit, Fonny’s face changes: from relative confidence, to fear, to injury, to hopelessness and cynicism. Midway through Tish visits and finds Fonny’s face pummeled with bruises. He’s clearly been beaten, but it isn’t until the end of the visit, when Fonny briefly turns in profile, that the audience can see the full of extent of his injuries, the white of his eye completely red. It felt like a razor-quick commentary on black men’s pain, the way they must present a face to the world, and how only by looking carefully, or obliquely, can the extent of their injury be glimpsed. The myriad frontal shots of characters’ faces seem designed to elevate them to portraiture as well as document their progressive emotions and challenges.
Jenkins conveys the particular misery of being oppressed in a society in which the lack of oppression is touted as its greatest virtue—true for most but not for black Americans, who are forced to live with freedom and respect tantalizingly out of reach. Fonny is a sculptor, and he and Tish are poised for a bohemian life in a warehouse district where buildings are beginning to be converted to apartments. The landlord escorts them into a wide concrete space, and he and Fonny attempt to convince Tish of its potential: Imagine the walls here, imagine the refrigerator here, imagine the neighbors who might stop by. She laughs and gives in to their enthusiasm, but for the viewer, the empty warehouse floor seems like a stand-in for America and its promise its black citizens: See how our system has such great bones, how much potential it has, see how if you just wait a little while longer, it will be livable for you, comfortable for you, home
You get that sense also in the scenes where Fonny is working on his sculpture, chiseling away at the block of wood little by little. The pair—and everyone they know—is also sculpting their lives, stroke by stroke, day by day, fashioning happiness and meaning for themselves, trying to turn potential into reality, materiality. In the end, the studio is empty, the work arrested, by Fonny’s imprisonment.
Without a bit of preaching the film conveys how this state of oppression threatens to distort every relationship in the film and every person’s sense of self. Tish must walk a tightrope at work in an upscale department store. Her mother Sharon (played by Regina King) must find a way to present herself and argue her case in a way that might convince the rape victim to retract her identification of Fonny as her attacker. The sheer emotional toll of putting on her wig and, again, sculpting herself to be acceptable to the outside world (in this case the Puerto Rican family of the victim)— knowing that lives depend on her successful presentation—is only outweighed by the agony of her failure. (It should be noted that Jenkins’ treatment of the rape storyline is excellent. The victim’s identification of Fonny was coerced by the police, and her utter, shattering pain is given full acknowledgment and respect.)
And in one of the most poignant scenes, you see the potential of black male friendship, as Fonny runs into a friend from the old neighborhood. The scene is told in flashback (the whole movie moves forward and backward in time), and Daniel, the friend, eventually reveals that he has just been released from prison on false charges. As he talks, his face in profile, he gives Fonny a glimpse of the hell that he endured there. It’s unbearably sad, but you see the comfort these two men can provide each other, the openness and intimacy they are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing, or would be if you didn’t already know that, a short time later, the police rearrest Daniel to pressure him to recant his (honest) alibi for Fonny. We are never told what happens when the police rearrest him because Jenkins is such a smart and efficient storyteller; watching this terrible scene, we know that Daniel, under threat of being returned to prison, will not be able to resist the pressure to recant. Another relationship warped and deformed by oppression, which pits the oppressed not just against the powerful but against each other in order to survive.
If this litany of sadness seems daunting, be assured that there is beauty and joy as well. Many critics have praised the film’s portrayal of black romantic love. There is a mother’s love, a new life, a demonstration of our ability to adapt and survive, a father’s energy and agency, the protection that community can provide. These are people who, to borrow the phrase, lean in. Jenkins’ incredible talents allow us to lean in toward them too.