“If Beale Street Could Talk” – A romantic drama that traces a young woman’s perspective as she deals with the tragedy of her fiancé being falsely imprisoned, is the follow-up to director Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award winning “Moonlight”.
Presented as a nonlinear reminiscence of the relationship between Tish and Fonny, childhood friends who develop a relationship as adults, Beale Street uses 1970’s New York as a backdrop to highlight the power of love and societal impact of inherent racism. The story follows Tish and Fonny as they search through New York to find a living space and studio when after an incident with a white man at their local grocery store, Fonny is later targeted by an immoral police officer and falsely arrested of rape. Once behind bars, Tish discovers she is pregnant and from there the film centers on them maintaining their relationship with the family trying everything possible to reverse his incarceration. And in a rather rare ending for a modern mainstream American film, IBSCT forgoes the traditional happy ending for something more reflective of the actual, tragic circumstances faced by many in the justice system.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is definitely notable for its style, the way the camera dances and flows as colours waft and dreamily inhabit scenes is one of its stronger points. Contrasted against scenes with fierce, raw dialogue that capture the voice of the neighbourhood really show that these lives are filled with both unhappiness and hope, that it’s not just one or the other. Being happy for this family means celebrating the good and being resilient against the bad with your head held high and not being ashamed of it. It is certainly an noteworthy film with a unique voice that is still under- represented in Hollywood film-making. However, as an entire package, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is squarely a noble misfire where the impact could have been much greater with a little more narrative focus.
I know exactly what I liked and didn’t like about “If Beale Street Could Talk”. And the parts I liked I really enjoyed, and the parts I didn’t took me completely out of the film. For me, it comes down to my perspective as to what Barry Jenkins is trying to achieve. As a cinematic love story that demonstrates the tragedy, sacrifice and hope this young couple experiences it’s a wonderful film. As a film about the African-American community and the daily struggle against intrinsic racism they experience, it didn’t quite connect with me. As a love story between Tish and Fonny, scenes where she is describing that she first knew she loved him when he gave her mother a sculpture, and how when he turns and talks to people he is still holding her hand really show how bonded and supportive they are of each other. Their first intimate encounter plays out slowly and almost silently, reflecting both their nervousness and desire. As it is revealed they were best of friends throughout childhood and you hear Tish share that it was never interest in their physical bodies that drew them together, that scene becomes more poignant and meaningful. As they search for a place to live and Fonny describes the layout of the loft, along with pantomiming bringing furniture in to ease her fears, support her, and shows that their bond is what is important to him really solidifies that this is a love story. However, there is a certain bleakness that runs as an undercurrent throughout the film that never seems to let go, and tends to forecast that this story is ultimately a tragedy that lasts long after the final scene. For example, Fonny’s friend Daniel relates to him the story of how he spent two years in prison for pleading to Grand Theft Auto instead of being charged with drug possession. He describes how the experience will haunt him for the rest of his life, and as we know that Fonny is incarcerated based on a false accusation adds to the tragedy of their romance. In doing so we get a little bit of thematic shift into the prejudice and unfairness of the justice system disproportionately targeting the African American community, but this is never quite in the forefront of the movie even though Fonny spends the vast majority of the runtime behind bars. It didn’t feel to me that was really the focus of the movie, so when something related to the case takes over the movie, such as when Fonny’s mother heads to Costa Rica to confront her son’s accuser, that whole section feels somewhat unnecessary and took me out focusing on the love story between Tish and Fonny. Now the scene itself works, as it does showcase the familial love she has, and even symbolizes her crisis of faith as she begs this woman wearing a cross to help save her son from his fate to no avail, but it feels quite removed both physically and tonally from the narrative back in New York. I found that part of this was due to the patchwork nature of the film, as scenes from different times are interspersed, jumping back and forth without it being framed as say a memory or flashback. It’s a kind of cinematic pointillism where each scene means something and you have to pull back to connect the whole narrative yourself. I think I might have preferred seeing Tish and Fonny’s relationship develop and follow with them as they look for houses, interact with their family, deal with bigots at the grocery or department store so that when Fonny comes to be arrested the weight of all that story has a more devastating impact and it feels like they are being torn apart. The way Beale Street is constructed now you have to make the connection yourself between Daniel describing his prison time and Fonny shedding a single tear as he dreams of sculpting art in his studio, or his mother’s indignation at her grandchild being born out of wedlock and her confronting his accuser in Puerto Rico.
However, the way Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton collaborate to give life to this story is poetry on film. From the way the camera swirls around Fonny with smoke wafting through the air in his studio, to the use of colours, focus and shadows, to the way a white man holds Tish’s hand at the perfume counter just a little too long, to characters who are framed in profile as they talk or directly to the camera, it is a very lyrical representation of evoking the prose of a novel.
Ultimately, there is a certain lack of dramatic tension in “If Beale Street Could Talk”, and the message of Fonny and Tish’s story being one of every African American feels a bit shallow. As a story that represents diversity and the power of love to bond people, overcome hardship and remain optimistic through it all, it succeeds.