Brian Tyree Henry
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
If Beale Street Could Talk January 17, 2019
he Harlem-bred lovers of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, 19-year-old Tish Rivers and 22-year-old Fonny Hunt (KiKi Layne and Stephan James), do not get to wallow in their romantic bliss for very long. Early sequencing speaks to this. In the film’s opening Tish and Fonny stroll through a park on an autumn day, their hands intertwined. The scene ends with an impassioned kiss. But, moments later, the drama
jumps ahead into the near future. In it, Fonny is in prison; Tish, speaking to her beloved through a telephone, a partition between them, tells him that she’s going to have his baby. This is how the movie, which unfurls achronologically, largely moves — a scene of all-too-brief euphoria followed by one of tension and dejection.
In If Beale Street Could Talk, we look at the opening scene as aspirational — a moment and a feeling Tish and Fonny, and us, wish could be recreated and then lived in forever. But their shared ecstasy is perennially punctuated with adversity; then it’s completely sabotaged. The film, which is based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, follows the genesis and then blossoming of Tish and Fonny’s romance, and how it is impeded when the latter is falsely accused of, and then booked for, rape. (Which, we find out, is the result of a vindictive, crooked policeman [Ed Skrein] setting him up.)
The nonlinearity of the narrative style, though matching the way Tish, who narrates the film, might look at her past in fragments, saps the film of some of its narrative urgency. This is a problem I also had with last year’s similarly structured Beautiful Boy, which comparatively bears a painful story but was to a great extent compromised by the hopscotching storytelling method.
The film, like its writer-director’s previous movies, Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and Moonlight (2016), is hyper-sensorial. Jenkins’ composition, assiduously symmetrical but carefully awry when need be, and James Laxton’s cinematography, dewy and colorful, seam together to engender beguiling cinematic beauty out of the 1970s Harlem in which the film is set. The film is lush to the point of parroting a dream; the act of looking is itself an intense experience. Some of the shots — like Tish and Fonny walking down a wet road with a red umbrella covering them, or the expansive sweep of the blue and yellow-dappled opening — moved me to a place of blurred vision.
Though I wondered, like the critic Doreen St. Félix, who wrote an exquisite essay partly about the film’s presentational style late last year for The New Yorker, if the movie is perhaps too beautiful, especially in comparison to the source material. The surrounding world as described in Tish’s point of view in Baldwin’s novel is largely dim and ambivalent — though certainly not without its moments — whereas the one as depicted in the movie is visually mouth-watering enough to render even its tragedies sort of prettied.
It could be argued that the sheen is a facet of the fact that this is a memory movie — constituting the recollections of its heroine and therefore maybe appearing inordinately rose-colored in particular moments. It could also be argued that Jenkins is straightforwardly devoted to eking out the most ravishing characteristics of the unfairly toyed-with, all-consuming romance. But the visual and sensual rosiness leaks into other portions of the feature in a way that isn’t so sensical: Some pessimistic plot points found in the book are left out of the film, for instance. Although the overarching political messages are heady, I can’t help but speculate about how much more powerful they might have come across been had there been less of an emphasis on the tableaux.
If Beale Street Could Talk manages to preserve its ability to rouse in spite of the shakily successful implementation of a shimmer. Much of that has to do with the majesty of the performances. Layne is immaculately heartrending — a natural as the not-yet-matured young woman who has to harden, early on, once injustice hampers a love and a life for which she has long yearned. The expressive James is a shattering revelation; Brian Tyree Henry, who appears in a supporting role as an old friend who has been traumatized by his experiences in prison, is devastating. (Paired with memorable appearances in Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018 was a banner year for the actor.)
If Beale Street Could Talk’s biggest actorial highlight is Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother. Even when she's in the background, King’s performance is attention-stealing. There is a sequence, late in the movie, when everything revolves around her. In it, she flies to Puerto Rico to try to speak with the woman who was ordered by the police to accuse Fonny of rape. It’s here that King gets to make impressive use of her underrated bonafides: She’s stellar as a woman encumbered by unthinkable rage tasked with the impractical and perhaps impossible.
I found If Beale Street Could Talk most electric when its characters were pushed past their respective breaking points. A scene where Tish and Fonny’s families meet so that the former can make her pregnancy announcement, which encompasses a clashing of genealogical personalities (the Rivers are gregarious, the Hunts god-fearing and mean) that culminates in a violent outburst. A beat when Fonny has an emotional catharsis, a partition in front of him, when Tish announces that she and her family are doing everything to get him out of prison. It is in these moments that the movie is most acute in its thematic ideas and emotional pulls; the lyricism of everything else, while inarguably beautiful, blear a little. B+