‘Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy.’ – James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young woman named Tish (KiKi Layne) in 1970s New York. The story is structured as a series of reminiscences, depicting her falling in love with a childhood friend, Fonny (Stephan James), her pregnancy, and his subsequent false imprisonment for rape. The film opens with the above quote from James Baldwin, the author of the 1974 novel from which the film is adapted. While the narrative focuses on specific familial experiences in Harlem, this is a story not only about Tish and Fonny but about black American experience in the 20th century.
Director Barry Jenkins takes on the formidable task described by Baldwin with great skill and humanity, following his 2016 film Moonlight, which won that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This film is deserving of a high ranking in the decade’s top films for its timely politics, its visual beauty, and its optimism. While the prevailing love story is a heartbreaking tale of love in the face of adversity (read: white oppression), the protagonists are always strong, tender, and dignified. This is a tale of black experience told by black voices, black music, and poetic cinematography. Where black stories are often told for a white audience in Hollywood film, If Beale Street Could Talk beautifully resists this by creating not only a narrative but an experience that expresses its characters’ lives sensually and empathetically. Our protagonist Tish speaks for herself, and the characters’ faces are shown often in closeup and in slow motion, conveying a feeling more of memory than of documentation. We are in her experience, never out of it.
KiKi Layne is mesmerising as Tish, who rarely speaks outside of her voiceover, but whose words are always precisely chosen. She’s funny and gentle in the memories we watch, and firm in her voiceover narration. Although the voiceover breaks the fourth wall, her voice is neatly edited into the flashbacks, without upsetting the atmosphere of the scenes. The moments she narrates are snapshots that perfectly render the feeling of memories; sometimes sharp but often purely emotive. The structure is organised for emotional effect rather than linearity; for instance, a scene of tension between Tish and Fonny’s families is intercut with Tish’s memories of a date with Fonny, each tender recollection unveiled alongside the insults she experiences from Fonny’s unsympathetic mother.
Nicholas Britell’s score plays from the film’s opening moments, infusing the story with its sweet and luscious melodies, overriding the diegetic sounds of the city just as Tish and Fonny’s love prevails over their daily struggles. The cinematography by James Laxton and the costume design by Caroline Eselin-Schaefer work with Britell’s soundtrack to create a wholly atmospheric, sensual cinematic experience. As we move through Tish’s memories, touch, sound, texture and emotion are central to the storytelling. There’s plenty of slow motion and long dialogue-free shots that enrich the film’s tone and move away from realist narrative; these techniques, while giving the film a distinctive feel, also strengthen Tish’s influence as the protagonist. We see what she remembers, what she feels, and the emotion that goes alongside these recollections. Importantly, this means seeing a great deal of Fonny and very little of the racist cop who causes his imprisonment. The policeman is thus disempowered; his influence, though central to the story, is minimised in her mind. This focusing of Tish’s attention helps make the film optimistic, as forces of oppression are ignored. One example of this is during a visit to Fonny in prison, in which a white prison officer stands behind Fonny, only his hands visible, demonstrating in one frame both the primary object of her gaze and the looming threat that lurks in the background of the story.
The film’s plot explores experiences not only of black lives but of Harlem’s rich multicultural population. Victoria, a Puerto Rican woman, falsely accuses Fonny of rape, but she is not vilified for her lie by the film or the characters – she has clearly been manipulated by the racist cop who points out Fonny in the lineup. Tish’s sister Ernestine clearly explains this manipulation to the audience and to Tish, and Tish’s mother Sharon is also clearly sympathetic to Victoria’s suffering. Sharon states firmly that she respects Victoria, but that she ‘knows what a woman knows.’ They don’t doubt her story, only that Fonny is its villain, and try to call on her familial sympathies to free him. Sharon travels to Puerto Rico to entreat Victoria to change her story, in a sequence that won Regina King, as Sharon, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Separately, Levy is a Jewish landlord that Tish and Fonny meet while searching for a home; he attempts to explain his happiness for two black people to rent his property by explaining ‘I’m just my mother’s son’ and referring to society’s oppressed as ‘us’, giving Tish and Fonny a sense of kinship. Fonny is also friendly with a restauranteur named Pedrocito, with whom he speaks Spanish. The world of the film is populated by outcasts, oppressed individuals who cautiously seek one another out and show mutual support. The white man, states Fonny’s friend Daniel, ‘must be the devil.’ Angering and awful though their plight against systematic and institutional racism is, Tish and Fonny are always in the foreground, their battles never overcoming them, their memories and love prevailing despite innumerable challenges. If Beale Street Could Talk is exactly what the title suggests: a voice given to the so often voiceless, a tale not only about Tish and Fonny but a nation of African-Americans living in every permutation of slavery.
With some incredible films emerging about black experience in the last decade, both independently and from major studios, we can be sure that the 2020s will continue to resist Hollywood’s whitewashing, and we can certainly hope for more wonderful cinema from Barry Jenkins.