starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Regina King
screenplay by Barry Jenkins, based on the book by James Baldwin
directed by Barry Jenkins
by Walter Chaw Barry Jenkins's If Beale Street Could Talk evokes Wallace Stevens's "The Snowman" and its idea of nothing beholding the nothing that is there and the nothing that isn't. It is all of the delirious, sublime rapture of falling in love; and it is all of the terrible fear of losing love to a capricious world that's rooting against you and rooting hard. The lips that would kiss are the same that form prayers to broken stones. If Beale Street Could Talk is about race and it's about sex--gender, somewhat, but more about how sex is politicized, used as a verb and an adjective, and there in the touch a sculptor gives his creation or lips give a cigarette. It's in the words that lovers old and new use together and it's in the sultry twilight where you can see the shape of your possible futures outlined as shadows against the exhaustion of another day. Baldwin's literature is seduction. His characters urge one another to listen and to use care when speaking. Words have meaning in Baldwin's world because in their interaction between the speaker and the listener, that's sex, too. He offers that there's harmony, even beauty, in the world, then shows the world in its bitterness and ugliness and challenges you to see it for yourself. I usually can't. Barry Jenkins, judging by the evidence of his films, can. It makes this adaptation by Jenkins of Baldwin's novel of the same name something a little like magic--you know, a little like sex.
DP James Laxton, who performed the same magic for Jenkins on Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, shoots everything in shades of dulcet nostalgia. The camerawork is liquid, floating in front of centred faces that break the fourth wall with expressions of yearning and regret. Reality never looked this romantic, but memories sometimes do, and that's the ineffable thing produced in the union of these artists, Jenkins and Baldwin. They're telling it like it is and romanticizing it, too, making a memorial of history without making light of it; they understand that Romanticism is wanting to return to a state that was only ever a lie, if it existed at all. There's an incredible moment when, in voiceover, Tish says she realized in an instant that Fonny was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen and the camera bathes him in her adoration and now ours. Fonny, scruffy and real-life handsome if you squint, is all of a sudden a matinee idol through Jenkins and Laxton's gold-tinted point of view. It's what cinema can do sometimes when the alchemy is right, and If Beale Street Could Talk does it more than once.
There's something astonishingly wise about the scene where Fonny and Tish first make love and how it's not that their nudity is extraordinary to each other so much as it's knowledge they didn't possess a few minutes earlier that's left them newly, mutually vulnerable. The fate of youth is predetermined. Youth ends, that's all it does. The film is told from the perspective of experience. Note the grace, the wisdom, of Jenkins refusing to vilify a rape victim (Emily Rios) who mistakenly fingers Fonny for the crime. It would be easy to manufacture outrage with a conventional hero/villain dynamic, but Jenkins instead empathizes with someone who's been caught in the gears of an inexorable machine as much as Fonny and Tish have. Even the racist cop (Ed Skrein) who pushes her to testify is more small and pathetic than truly monstrous. They're all--we're all--victims of something institutional and intractable. If Beale Street Could Talk is an angry movie that values, above everything else, maintaining a sense of dignity. The one time anyone loses it, they're lost. It says that the only roadmap to equality is to rise above. And to love ferociously.