Today, in America, there is an abundance of opinion. Opinion about whether black athletes should kneel to protest police brutality, or salute a flag in which they do not feel pride. Opinion about a female black athlete daring to defend her honour live on television. About whether Spike Lee makes good points with his film BlacKkKlansman, or if he sold out to appease police forces. Black music videos, black fashion… everyone has opinions on race in America, whether they are qualified to speak on it or not. Out of this hurricane of noise and sound bites and bile, Barry Jenkins brings forth a powerful film: If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from the 1974 James Baldwin novel, that condenses everything down to a message of empowerment which I hope will find a large audience.
Set in the 1970s, Beale Street is the story of a young black man and woman, Fonny and Tish, friends since childhood. They fall in love and begin a life together, complete with a baby on the way, only to have the fairy tale come crashing down when the man is falsely accused of raping a stranger.
James Baldwin’s novel is both incredibly romantic – “We held each other so close that we might indeed have been one body” – and angry – “For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.” Barry Jenkins approaches this material from a position of personal desire. Introducing the film, he contrasted it with his previous work by calling Moonlight the “family he had” and If Beale Street Could Talk the “family he wished he had had.” The incredible backbone of Tish’s family in working to free Fonny suggests that the fight against prejudice in America is one of attrition. The system will not change quickly, but neither must a family’s pride and determination. And it is Tish’s parents, played by Regina King and Colman Domingo, who carry the emotional load in the film. Domingo uses a weary air to show how his father figure has come to see the absurdity of dealing with the authorities as a black man in America, while Regina King is all desperation and relentless focus as the mother.
The actual young lovers, played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, are more passively involved in the fight. Not that they care less, of course, but when it comes to Tish and Fonny, Jenkins is more interested in building up their romance. Their story is told in a fragmented way, bouncing between childhood memories, pre- and post-arrest time together, and visits with friends (in particular with a wonderful Brian Tyree Henry). Jenkins uses techniques fans of Wong Kar-Wai will enjoy in delivering the romance to the screen: slow camera movements, vibrant color palette, repetition of gazes and embraces. It is an absolutely beautiful film, stunningly beautiful, and that beauty is amplified by the melancholic score by Nicholas Britell.
The end result of If Beale Street Could Talk is empowerment. Jenkins reminds a viewer who feels prejudice that they can be strong in the face of it. He also reminds a viewer that they do not have to be up in arms at all times; even in the face of prejudice, it is not only okay to love and be loved, but it is of paramount importance. As black families pass down the wounds of slavery, they also pass down the resilience that sees them thrive despite efforts against them, and that resilience comes from the love and bonds of family.
The people in power will continue to tweet and debate kneeling versus saluting, or some version of it, forever. While they do, says Jenkins… go and live the best life you can, and love and protect your family. Sometimes, the simplest messages are the most important to hear.