It’s hard to know where to begin, every shot in this film aches with such sincerity and affection that by about the twenty minute mark I was already a puddle of tears in an oversized hoody. Sure, I’m a sucker for tragic romance, seeing struggling people pull together to face adversity. The leads of If Beale Street Could Talk are family; their problems are largely private and, while beset by problems from the outside world, they find strength in their unity. Barry Jenkins chooses to centre so much of his movie around acts of care, prioritising the depiction of tenderness in a world that can oft be so cruel.
Of course, just about anything playing out under Nicholas Brittell’s beautiful score would be interpreted as a work of melancholy beauty. I’m sitting here writing, listening to it, and already am starting to envisage myself as some bohemian artist. My hammering at keys becoming something far more significant by association. Like the film, it never pushes for empty drama or hastily manufactured conflict. The world is made small enough that the tiniest gestures speak volumes to the weight that they impart.
But with that comes lightness. There’s a scene where two people walk down a street after receiving some good news that just lives an extended moment of joy. I don’t know how it seems like the characters are floating three feet off of the ground, but the essence, the core of that feeling is captured. It’s mostly the actors, grinning, blushing, trying to share a secret excitement without the whole world seeing, bathed in the dappled glow of a New York sunset. Beauty is contained wherever love is.
The film opens in a prison visiting room. Fonnie (Stephan James) has been unjustly imprisoned and his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) has come to announce her pregnancy and the family’s resolve to clear his name before the birth. From there we intercut between the young couple’s relationship leading up to the arrest, and the work of two families as they strive to resolve the situation.
The young girl narrates, with words that I presume are lifted straight from James Baldwin’s lyrical prose. It rarely provides context, despite the slightness of any individual scene, instead it offers us shading. Interpretation from a biased eye often more perceptive than our own. A short aside from the text brings depth to the core humanity of the film: Jenkins lets us peep briefly into the inner life of the family’s white lawyer, momentarily confronting the reality of his situation.
It does not feel like an interruption, the measured pace on show here allows room for so many moods to flourish. Brian Tyree Henry, for example has a glorious single scene performance which acts as a meditation on the injustice of incarceration, and the psychological impact that it leaves. Aunjanue Ellis takes a brief turn as Fonnie’s mother, who disapproves of her son’s choice in a partner and has little regard for the men in her life. Dave Franco (who you just know is so smug that he got to be in this movie) appears as a landlord with an intriguing proposition.
I don’t remember any of these folks getting much comment from the voiceover. Like, it knows that what they’re serving up is more than enough, lingers for a while so we can be drawn momentarily into them. I’m missing people here; Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo. All wonderful, all who have themselves seared into my memory. There’s an energy, tremendous life when you cram so many into as small a place as their apartment here, like the core cast of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake we can see their rhythms — see the shapes they form to accommodate each other.
Oh, and the spaces that are on show. We spend so little time outside on the Harlem streets sideways referred to in the title, but who really cares when these rooms are so nice. You know those tacky wall murals in middle class kitchens, ‘no house is small when it’s full of love’? Cinematographer James Laxton has obviously taken that saying straight to heart. Everything here is so shot through with romance. The leads complain about their shitty leaking basement flat, but my God if that damp murkily lit single room ain’t the entire world.
When they get there the first time, and it’s a mess, and they lie down on the bare mattress on the floor underneath what looks to be a stairwell. My heart just bursts. I know in that moment there’s nowhere else I’d prefer to be watching, because there’s nowhere else our leads would prefer to be. Even in prison, clutching their telephones either side of a glass divide the space feels right, it appears to expand and contract at will, the sound mixing truly masterful in how it serves to swerve between their connection and alienation.
We crucially never see anyone else visit the man. Anything else would violate the sanctity of that environment, its meaning as a place where only this one specific, essential, melancholy mood can flourish. It’s one of Jenkins’ most wonderful talents as a filmmaker, his ability to plaster feeling into the walls that surround his characters.
The movie begins with a quotation from Baldwin, explaining the title, its connection to Black culture and the inescapable reality of ghettoization. ‘Every black person in America was born on Beale Street…’ it explains. This movie effortlessly captures the material’s intended universality. This Harlem is replicated across America, and these lives find themselves relived over and over. Hopefully through the level of compassion and grace that is displayed here we might find ourselves motivated to start dismantling it.
If Beale Street Could Talk releases in UK cinemas February 8th.