Love is often inseparable from loss. And love pours out in immense, tearful amounts in director Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk – the eponymous adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel that puts this bittersweet sentiment onto the plane of masterful artistry. The follow up to Jenkins’ Best Picture-winner Moonlight (2016), this romance-drama melds a telling of America’s racial injustices into a devastating and intricate craft of empathy; so married to the human body and spirit that it never loses sight of those sitting right at its story’s centre.
Beale Street opens on young lovers Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they walk through the streets of New York City. “You ready for this?”, Fonny asks. “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life,” Tish replies, her eyes never leaving Fonny’s face. The camera doesn’t either, and it lingers and swirls around them – capturing their embrace, kiss, and touch. It’s so intimately attached to its characters’ faces, their eyes staring straight down the lens, piercing holes into your memory. You feel like you’re watching that moment, in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson, from the inside.
As soon as we enter Baldwin’s world, Jenkins opens a window into both Tish and Fonny’s lives, letting us step right into their simple Harlem apartment. Here, against Jenkins’ warm palette, character and visual aesthetic are inextricably linked, so much that the overall picture brims with emotions that leak out of the screen, right to the tears that pour down your face. Through the film’s non-linear structure and Tish’s voiceover, you feel the tenderness, anguish, and overbearing affection coupling the narrative’s considerate beats. Flashbacks are generous in developing the central romance – adding colour and texture to the fabric of hurt and desperation that simmers more urgently in the present. But there’s also no rush: the camera patiently watches and often returns to an infant Tish and Fonny playing in a bathtub, and the joyous moment as they find their dream home – light beaming onto their faces in an elating celebration of hope.
Time also bends itself backwards to fuse together the film’s fragmentary storylines. Tish and Fonny’s relationship is built up to glorious heights in one period; their time of exultation brief, before it becomes marred by a darker section that threatens to tear them apart. Yet the tragic implications don’t feel real until a physical screen separates Fonny and Tish in the present, their faces pressed right against each other – not touching. Fonny’s in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish – now pregnant – is supported by her family (a mighty powerful performance from Regina King as Tish’s mother) as they fight for a way to reunite. Although literally parted, the pair’s connection holds up as strongly as it did in the past – but now there is heartbreak, waning spirit, and crushing vulnerability.
Like how Fonny chisels away at his sculptures (a passion that Tish explains as having “saved him from the death that awaited the children of our age”), Jenkins carves away at his film – treating it with the same care and attentive detail. He zooms in on small, personal moments where love feels indestructible, and so magnifies them to such a degree that they bleed right into an imbalanced political system charged with white policing and deliberate black suppression. This discord makes that crumbling, inevitable reality hurt all the more, especially when the couple’s love is so profound and optimistic – elevated by a deeply felt compassion that seeps through single frames of the film.
Jenkins’ filmmaking craft isn’t a lone venture: cinematographer James Laxton’s camerawork and lighting are simply exquisite, adding beguiling definition to the black skin and body. His trademark is the in-focus close-up, and Laxton captures every face with such a purposeful gaze that they say everything about the character, words unnecessary. His camera glides with a slow elegance – making the ordinary look utterly alluring, turning simple details like the smoke from a cigarette into a dancing silk thread. Nicholas Britell’s score also feels perfectly embedded within the film, alternating between strings, French horns, and piano – his placid tempo and romantic ‘Eden’ theme matching the duo’s passionate and painful relationship; a deeper rumbling of cellos evoking imminent horrors.
The word ‘masterpiece’ is thrown around so much that its meaning is often blunted, perhaps even made inane. But in witnessing Jenkins’ humane aesthetic and his commanding ability to collaborate, it’s difficult not to apply that word to If Beale Street Could Talk – and in the process, earmark Jenkins as a virtuoso of feeling.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in Australian cinemas from 14 February.
Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and the theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou