What ‘Beale Street’ has to say
Jake Winningham | Friday, February 1, 2019
“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born,” James Baldwin wrote in his 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins takes that quote to heart in his film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, a sumptuously shot and emotionally devastating romance set in 1970s Harlem. Young lovers Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James, both magnetic) are separated when Fonny is arrested and jailed for a rape he did not commit. The film’s plot switches between a pregnant Tish’s visits to her partner in jail and flashbacks to their courtship and life before Fonny’s arrest; all the while, Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels as far as Puerto Rico in order to clear Fonny’s name. The exact details of the plot are unimportant — the true power of “Beale Street” lies in its photography, shot by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton and Jenkins’ masterful script, which revels in the minutiae of black life without losing sight of the larger picture.
On a purely technical standpoint, “Beale Street” is yet another triumph for Jenkins. Reunited with “Moonlight” vets Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, Jenkins and his crew recreate so much of what made that Best Picture winner an all-time movie experience. Jenkins’ work with Laxton solidifies the director’s status as a master of close-ups, as each shot of Tish and Fonny’s faces is held in an almost religious adoration. Britell’s score is reminiscent of his music for “Moonlight” while standing entirely on its own; it is evocative and stirring without ever detracting from the film.
In a sense, “Moonlight” and “Beale Street” are worthy companion pieces. Both are singular works, each matching the other in terms of artistry and acting talent. Where “Beale Street” exceeds its predecessor, for me, is in its outlook — skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. Both films contain a final or penultimate shot of a black couple embracing each other with an uncertain future before them. Paradoxically, the pair who are both free — Chiron and Kevin holding each other in “Moonlight” — are the ones who seem to have the rockiest path ahead. “Beale Street” ends with Tish visiting Fonny in jail with their son. While it is implied that Fonny will not be released for a long while, the audience at least knows that the two lovers will stick it out. When the camera leaves Chiron and Kevin, they are both looking into the middle distance — into the future — and they don’t like what they see. At the end of “Beale Street,” Tish and Fonny only have eyes for each other.
Jenkins obviously used the Baldwin quote above as a guiding light for creating the world of “Beale Street,” which has a specificity that ties it to its time period while telling a story of prejudice and power that is unfortunately timeless. The circumstances of Fonny’s arrest could have happened in 1974 or 2014. Only the clothes signify to the audience what time period they are witnessing. When Fonny’s friend Daniel — Brian Tyree Henry, who has now done fantastic work in three of 2018’s best films, including “Widows” and “Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse” — talks about his own unlawful arrest, his story is less of an actorly monologue and more of a documentary testimonial. The audience recognizes their pain because we have seen it on our news. This is the first time we have seen this movie, but not this story. The title of “If Beale Street Can Talk” is ultimately misleading. The question is not whether or not Beale Street can talk; we know that it can. The question is whether or not we are willing to listen.