FilmSpace: If Beale Street Could Talk

Film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at Barry Jenkins’ follow up to the Oscar winning Moonlight. 

If Beale Street Could Talk – ★★★★☆ 

Valentine’s Day traditionally heralds a rom-com or two, something light and fluffy that goes down well with roses and a box of chocolates. While the genre has seen a healthy resurgence in the last year, for the romantic connoisseur they often represent a kind of commodified love, one diluted by clichés and Valentine’s Day itself.

If Beale Street Could Talk comes from somewhere else, unfamiliar to Hollywood smiles and young, hot, white leads. In some ways it does hold up a mirror to these run-of-the-mill films, making a mockery of their orchestrated tension and inevitable happy endings.

Tish and Fonny have been friends since they were kids, the story choosing to forego a cute first-meet. Now young adults, they enter, slowly, into a relationship. Their happily ever after is interfered with when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, convicted on the word of a racist officer and a hurting victim. Now behind bars, Tish is left fighting her partner’s case on the outside. She’s pregnant too, having to share the good news with Fonny after his incarceration, and left to tell his religious family without him as a buffer.

It’s a story of innocence lost for no reason other than blind hatred, countered by the optimism of a love worth living every day for, until they can be together again.

Adapted from a story by James Baldwin, the author told tales of black America when few others were able. Compared to the romantic stories that dominate cinema’s canon, Beale Street’s central relationship is not tarnished by misunderstandings or missing travel connections or hidden secrets coming to the fore. Tish and Fonny are in love and want for no drama, but the story of black America is one in which black people have never been allowed to just live their lives.

While the false conviction is the driving force for much of the plot, there are other instances of the oppressive society they live in affecting their relationship. The young couple want to live together but struggle to find a landlord who will rent to black people. Tish experiences harassment which Fonny cannot physically prevent without looking like the perpetrator in the eyes of a racist policeman.  

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The couple are remarkable in their ordinariness. They want for little other than each other, making for a romantic film that feels alive with electricity. In what must be one of cinema’s best sex scenes, the camera stays by Tish’s side as she watches Fonny undress, her face shifting from nervous to smitten. It’s a private moment captured beautifully, completely unsensational, focusing entirely on the connection between two lovers behind closed doors, away from everyone else, but away also from the forces that target people with their skin colour.

Yet, despite all these obstacles, there is little anger, at least not of the palpable sort. If anything, the film is poetic in its beautifully framed shots of faces looking the camera straight in the eye. Unflinching, these empathetic bursts of humanity demand eye-contact with characters facing injustices, passing their love for each other on to the audience, silently questioning how all of this is allowed to happen.

But what anger there is bubbles below the surface. One such image of Fonny looking down the lens has him with a black eye, alluding to terrible treatment in prison. One night, he and Tish sit with his friend Daniel, recounting his experience of life on the inside, the scene slowly transitioning from a welcome catch-up to a horror story.

If Beale Street Could Talk is like a folk tale, of beautiful lives in a community targeted by racial hatred. That community has been forced into hiding, poverty, low paid jobs, and what Tish and Fonny represent is a type of transcendental purity, where love is seen as the great leveller, something that connects all of us. But the magic of that cannot coexist alongside a racist system, and for every heavenly shot of the young couple together that sticks in your mind, so too does one of them separated by glass. It’s a story of innocence lost for no reason other than blind hatred, countered by the optimism of a love worth living every day for, until they can be together again.

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