The first words spoken in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk are both a challenge and a promise: “Are you ready for this?” 19-year-old Tish Rivers (phenomenal newcomer KiKi Layne) asks 22-year-old Alonzo Hunt, aka Fonny (Stephan James). “I’ve never been more ready for anything in all my life,” he answers.
Be warned, however. Unlike Fonny, you are not ready. Nothing can prepare you the wave of soft feelings that are about to drown in for the next two hours. Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, Beale Street is a work of quiet intensity, a literary adaptation that uses silence and music as powerfully as it does words. Jenkins has created a cinematic poem, one that alternatively soars with joy and love and guts you with pain.
Soon after that first scene, which shows Tish and Fonny, dressed in yellow and blue hues that echo each other, walking hand in hand through a Harlem park, we learn that the latter is in jail. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says, her narration punctuating the action we see on screen throughout the film. The reason for his incarceration isn’t immediately made clear, enabling Jenkins to first allow the audience to form whatever opinion they will in seeing a Black man behind bars, and then challenge those stereotypes or assumptions when he reveals that Fonny was wrongfully accused of rape.
The film slips back and forth between the present, where Tish lets Fonny know that she’s pregnant with his baby, and the past, through Tish’s memories of their romantic time together.
Though it explores issues of racism, sexual assault, police brutality, systemic injustice in the legal system, and how they impact the everyday existence of communities of colour, Beale Street is first and foremost a breathtaking love story. And in that way, it feels almost more subversive and contemporary. It shows us a full, vibrant picture of Black existence — pain and suffering, yes, but also the rare bond that exists between two individuals, their families, and the life that they’re about to bring into the world.
Layne is subdued and understated in her portrayal of Tish, not to be mistaken with weakness or meekness. She’s soft-spoken, but determined, a trait that becomes apparent in the way she stands up for her and Fonny’s right to be parents when confronted by her mother-in-law in a scene of such complex and comic tension that it alone would make the film worth seeing.
In return, James feasts on her with every glance, unspoken love letters welling up in his eyes as they shift from childhood friends, to lovers, to soulmates. The two have incredible chemistry, and carefully construct an ambiance of intimacy that’s incredibly poignant.
One scene that’s stuck with me for months takes place on a grimy subway platform. Fonny and Tish have just spent their first night together, in his leaky, basement apartment on Bank Street, in New York’s West Village. He’s bringing her back up to Harlem. As they wait for the train, she leans back into him, and he puts his arms around her. It’s raw, and instantly recognisable — there’s a pre-sex and post-sex phase of a relationship, and Jenkins captures that subtle transition right before our eyes. The director’s affection for his protagonists is obvious in the way he films them, with tenderness and sympathy, the angles emphasising their beauty and youth in the throes of passion.
Lifting up the impressive young leads is a powerhouse supporting cast, including Colman Domingo and Regina King (who’s deservedly getting awards chatter for her performance) as Tish’s parents, Joseph and Sharon; Teyona Parris as Ernestine, Tish’s sister; and the always brilliant Brian Tyree Henry, as Fonny’s friend Daniel, himself newly released from an unjust prison sentence. Much as Mahershala Ali did in Moonlight, Henry commands his short amount of screentime, giving a performance that stays with you long after the film has moved on.
Still, despite its male director, and source material author, Beale Street feels like a distinctly feminine film, concerned as it is with properly mapping out the experiences of its women, be it Tish’s apprehension at telling her father about her pregnancy (and her relief when he responds with love, and understanding), or Sharon’s difficult conversation with Fonny’s accuser, in which she acknowledges her undeniable trauma, woman to woman, but begs her not to seek revenge by accusing the father of her daughter’s child unless she’s certain of his guilt.
James Laxton’s cinematography is appealingly saturated and rich, a style that goes hand in hand with Caroline Eselin’s arresting ‘70s costumes, full of bright primary colours to optimise visual pleasure.
And the music. That the Beale Street score was not nominated for a Golden Globe remains a travesty. Nicholas Britell’s (the very same who brought us Succession’s catchy piano score) jazzy notes and haunting violin refrain evoke a slow dance of seduction, rain, pain, and release, that will keep those tears flowing, even if you can’t quite pin down why.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out in UK cinemas on 8th February 2019