BY EMILY ROLES FOTSO ’21
Based on James Baldwin’s classic novel of the same name, Barry Jenkins’ (“Moonlight”) “If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of a young Black couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). After Fonny is falsely accused of rape and sent to jail, Tish discovers she is pregnant with his child, and she and her family set out to do whatever it takes to prove his innocence. Jenkins’ refined and highly stylized approach to filmmaking creates a subtle and deeply emotional masterpiece that honors Baldwin’s work while still creating something unique and effective
The first shot sets the tone for the film — a sweeping overhead shot shows Tish and Fonny strolling hand in hand through a park, their color-coordinated outfits matching the fall leaves. The scene is undercut by Nicholas Britelli’s brilliant score, with soft violins that make the setting seem even more enchanted. This is not the harsh and dirty New York that Baldwin writes about in the novel; it is vivid, picturesque and almost surreal in its beauty. This is Fonny and Tish’s love, a dreamlike, unbreakable thing that moves the story forward, shining through even in scenes rife with anguish and hopelessness.
The overhead shot is followed by a close-up of each character’s face, a recurring motif that is one of Jenkins’ signatures. The characters stare directly into the camera, which in turn magnifies their emotions and captures the audience in a suspended moment until it feels like something tangible and real. The close-ups in this scene show a couple deeply in love, untouched by the horrors that await them. Their expressions shift as the film continues; fear, pain, anger and hopelessness become more prominent as Tish and Fonny endure the hardships that come with being Black in 1970s America
Though Jenkins’ adaptation dulls some of the sharper edges of the novel, the rage and despair of Baldwin’s original work are still woven in. Preserving Baldwin’s nonlinear storytelling allows Jenkins to cut emotionally intense and painful scenes and replace them with heartwarming scenes of young Black love. Even these scenes, however, are tinged with sadness at the knowledge of what is to come. One particularly effective scene occurs when Fonny’s previously incarcerated friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) comes over for dinner. The lighting is significantly darker than usual and so is the coloring; warm colors have been leached and only black, blue and brown remain as Daniel recounts his traumatic experience behind bars, this color scheme emphasizing the dehumanization and the absolute lack of autonomy he faced at the hands of white officers. As Fonny reassures him that he is out of prison now and will never face them again, the audience is burdened with the knowledge that this will soon be Fonny’s fate, because the film’s nonlinear narrative has already revealed its ending.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a triumph and a testament to Barry Jenkins’ talent and understanding of the film medium. Subtle and spellbinding performances from both main and supporting actors, a breathtaking score and beautiful cinematography create an effective and moving piece of cinema that won over critics and audiences alike. The film’s ending, while bleak, leaves room for hope for the future. Tish and Fonny’s son is born in a flood of light, and as they visit Fonny in prison years later, Tish’s voiceover talks of fighting for freedom and liberty for future generations over a slideshow of black and white pictures of painful periods in African American history. Though the injustices that plagued Fonny and Tish continue to affect Black people in America today, Jenkins seems to urge audiences not to give up. There is always something to fight for; if not for ourselves, then for future generations.