If Beale Street Could Talk is a paradox. It is a beautiful movie about ugly realities. It is light enough to take flight and simultaneously weighed down. It should be an ordinary love story of two young people, but it also can’t be because those two people are black. And it is a movie of extraordinary substance, but only sometimes. So, I loved it, but only sometimes.
One of the most significant paradoxes, is how the film can feel incredibly focused and far too broad with its characterization. This is especially true for Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan Lane), the couple around which the film (and occasionally the camera) revolves. Tish is newly pregnant. Fonny is newly imprisoned. It is a story that feels sadly inevitable. So even as Tish holds out hope for her beloved’s return, we watch with a sense of doom. They are beautiful outlines, walking down the street, hand in hand. Brightly blue and yellow clothing against the concrete sidewalk, you want to follow their silhouettes forever. But that’s all they are. Outlines. They never feel shaded in because so many things, their personalities, their histories, feel like afterthoughts in the narrative. Instead, they are constantly overshadowed by racist, societal forces that refuse to see them as people. And ironically, neither can we.
Though, Barry Jenkins certainly tries. His humanist style is apparent in every shot. When his camera focuses, really focuses, on Tish’s and Fonny’s faces, the lack of explanatory detail is utterly insignificant. Their eyes seem to contain a depth that is voiceless, a meaning that is inexplicable. When the score starts thrumming and the camera sweeps across a brick New York street, the feeling grows until it encompasses everything. Those overwhelming moments don’t by themselves, make the film incredible, but it certainly impresses upon you the importance of every moment. Time slows down, each passing moment agonized over, a memory in movement. For Tish and Fonny, after all, time is of the essence. Separation by prison glass makes every second precious. Seconds before Fonny is led away to a place where even Tish’s love cannot reach. Seconds before their time together is a distant memory.
The film’s greatest accomplishment, though, is forming characters around the Tish and Fonny so their relationship never becomes claustrophobic. In that way, the movie emphasizes familial love as much as romantic much to its advantage. Unlike Tish, her parents have long seen the world as it is. So, their happiness at the imminent birth is both incredibly joyous and a cautious projection. Regina King as Tish’s mom stands unwaveringly in her role, her eyes swimming with hidden vulnerabilities. And as Tish’s father, Coleman Douglas is a pillar of strength, going so far as to sell stolen merchandise to support the increasingly heavy fees for the lawyer. Every moment that the world crumbles, there is a willing hand, reaching out to take on another burden.
A love story above all, If Beale Street Could Talk wanders in a world of color without ever hesitating to explore the dark corners. It is, after all, in the hidden spaces where love blossoms best. In a cramped apartment room where Tish and Fonny finally connect. In a family home, where the celebration for a new member begins with a toast. In these places, there can be no police interference or shady justice systems. In these places, love triumphs.