Falling in love is the easy part. There is excitement, discovery, and the palpable sense of mutual chemistry. What comes afterward is the hard part: a series of negotiations, betrayals, and apologies that are governed by an overarching need for mutual acceptance. If Beale Street Could Talk, the miraculous new film from Barry Jenkins, shows how the hard part is even harder in the United States where you’re black, effectively a second class citizen. In adapting a slim novel by James Baldwin, Jenkins avoids the trappings of “romance” for a drama that’s more sensuous, and more daring.
Like Baldwin’s book, Jenkins uses the memories of his protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) to jump around in time and tell the story of her relationship with Fonny (Stephan James). Fonny and Tish met as children, but as they got older, they fell in love and he got her pregnant. The announcement of the pregnancy is our entry point to their respective families. Led by Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), her family is immediately welcoming, while Fonny’s family is quick to judge. But fraught family dynamics are only the start of their problems: Fonny is in jail – a neighborhood woman accused him of rape – and everyone is desperate to get him out.
Jenkins captures the spirit of Baldwin’s book, not the letter of it. There are long sequences where no one says a word, and the actors must convey depth of feeling through simple movements, or how they look at each other. James and Layne share a love scene that is longer than what you might expect. The calisthenics of sex do not really interest Jenkins; he would rather convey something more sublime, like the heightened sense of trust or tension. What he accomplishes – a wordless bond of uncommon tenderness – is so delicate that, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, it could have dissolved into parody. The reason it works is because he treats actors with sensitivity, and intuitively understands how small gestures carry big meaning. Just like in Moonlight, Jenkins focuses on faces in Beale Street because, well, they’re most fascinating subject for any camera.
Aside from the two leads and the performances behind them, Beale Street creates large canvas of characters and locales. Jenkins’ vision of New York in the 1970s is a mix of concrete desolation and fleeting moments of tranquility. A simple image like a kid dancing atop a parked car, or the sunset peering through a narrow cobblestone street, accent the life Fonny and Trish carved for themselves (there is also a strange, lovely scene where Dave Franco plays their potential future landlord, and his acceptance of a young black couple is so simple, and so morally direct that it’s heartbreaking).
The older characters, Sharon in particular, are wearier and their experience informs their capacity for love or rejection. Tish and Fonny’s respective fathers hash out the situation over a few drinks, with a mix of resignation and hard-earned understanding that they must push hard on the scales of justice in order to balance them. In the lengthy sequence where Tish’s family breaks the news to Fonny’s family, King’s nonverbal acting is almost like watching a conductor in action. Every glance or movement of her hand suggests she internalizes the nature of everyone in her home, and she’s all too afraid of how the drama will play out.
The real MVP for this movie, however, is not Jenkins, Baldwin, or even his acting ensemble. That award should go to Nicolas Brittell, the film’s composer. Ever since he provided additional music for 12 Years a Slave, Brittell has quietly become the most exciting composer in the movies today (you may also recognize his work from HBO’s Succession). The music in Beale Street uses violins to create a sense of unresolved tension, and it’s augmented by horns and woodwinds that almost serve as soliloquies for what the characters themselves cannot articulate. The music blends classical, modern, and jazz traditions into something vibrant and stunning. This is the rare film where you’ll find yourself revisiting the score on Spotify long after it’s over.
In promotional materials for If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins says he wanted to convey how romantic love is a revolutionary act for black people in America. That subtext is palpable throughout the film: Fonny and Tish defiantly create a bubble for themselves, one that could be burst by reality at any moment. This is not a happy story, but it is not a hopeless one, either. Long after Tish and Fonny negotiate the love between each other, they find room in their hearts to make peace with a home that has little use for them. This film shows us that love without risk is hardly love at all.