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Non-Review Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful and poetic piece of work.

From a certain perspective, the film is poetic in too literal a sense. If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from the work of James Baldwin, and conscious venerates its inspiration. The opening title card quotes from Baldwin’s introduction to the book, and makes a point to allow his name to linger on screen after the quote itself has faded from view. There are extended sequences of If Beale Street Could Talk that are lifted directly from the book, occasionally even laid over black-and-white photos from the era to underscore the broader social commentary.

Fonny how things end up…

This would normally be an issue in an adaptation of a beloved literary work, in the same way that certain adaptations of theatrical works can seem “stagey” like Fences or even Doubt. If Beale Street Could Talk is very lucky in its choice of director. Barry Jenkins is a fantastic visual storytelling, with a wonderful eye for composition and a breathtaking way of seeing the world that seems to bleed through the screen itself. For the most part, If Beale Street Could Talk benefits from Jenkins’ strong visual style working in tandem with Baldwin’s searing prose.

There are moments when one threatens to overwhelm the other, when Jenkins’ task of adapting Baldwin’s story for the screen brushes against the limitation of the form; a monologue just a little too arch, a tangent just a little bit too removed, a transition just a little too forced. However, these moments are few and far between, and If Beale Street Could Talk is a stunning piece of cinema.

A lover’s Tish.

If Beale Street Could Talk looks sumptuous. From a production standpoint, the film is dazzling. As one might expect from Jenkins, colour literally pops off the screen. Jenkins is working with collaborator James Laxton, who also worked with him on Moonlight. Laxton understands how to use lighting to showcase both his characters and his environments, heavily saturating the film. Mark Friedberg’s production design and Kris Moran’s set decoration also contribute to this.

The opening text of If Beale Street Could Talk suggests that the movie unfolds on a metaphorical space. Baldwin’s title explicitly references the real-life Beale Street in New Orleans, but the film’s story unfolds against the back drop of New York. Indeed, geography proves to be a recurring fixation for the film; whether the street maps the prove a character’s innocence, the subway journeys that connect them, or even a late trip overseas.

“Up on the roof’s the only place I know…”

However, the world of the film is consciously heightened, coloured in shades of greens and yellows and purples, as if filtered through a dream. If Beale Street Could Talk is very consciously drawing upon a real history, as reinforced those photographs overlaid against monologues about the prison industrial complex or the harsh realities of young black children growing up in fifties and sixties America. However, the particulars of this story take on something resembling a fairytale quality. The characters almost seem to glide through an ethereal realm, trying to escape the harsh world.

This makes a certain amount of sense. If Beale Street Could Talk is largely narrated by its protagonist, Tish Rivers. The story unfolds in a strange and disjointed manner, more like a stream of consciousness conversation than an objective accounting of events. The story moves back and forward through time, along emotional tangents. It follows the romance and courtship of young lovers Fonny and Tish, juxtaposed with Tish’s attempts to keep her head above water when Fonny is accused of rape and she discovers that she is pregnant.

An a-Beale-ing couple.

This heightened visual style is a fitting companion to Baldwin’s lyrical prose. Throughout If Beale Street Could Talk, both Jenkins and Baldwin meditate on the idea of what freedom actually means, particularly for generations of African Americans who have been trapped in poverty and whose suffering has never truly been acknowledged. The struggle for freedom, in some small form, is the central thread that runs through If Beale Street Could Talk.

Most of the characters in If Beale Street Could Talk yearn for freedom, even if they have reconciled themselves to the fact that they might never attain it for themselves. For all that the characters in the film are verbose and articulate, they repeatedly speak of something that they are unable to verbal express. Daniel Carty studies an abstract wooden sculpture on which Fonny is working, and he understands immediately that it seeks to give form to something impossible to name. “It has weight,” he remarks of the artwork, speaking both literally and figuratively.

Locked in.

Sometimes this burden is physical captivity. Much is made of Fonny’s friend Daniel, who served time in prison for a crime that he never committed. “If I’d done something and got caught,” he concedes, “I could live with it.” Danny speaks of incarceration as an existential horror. “What I’ve seen in there? I’ll be having nightmares about for the rest of my life.” Even when Daniel is freed, he is not free. Incarceration is just a literal expression of the sort of captivity that faces these characters.

If Beale Street Could Talk returns time and again to the idea that parents all seek greater freedom for their children. That freedom need not be literal, it can be more abstract. It is Tish’s mother who tracks down Fonny’s accuser to Puerto Rico, in the hope that her daughter might be freed of the burden of Fonny’s prison sentence. Even as the fetus grows inside Trish, it kicks eagerly at her, as if itself desiring a freedom that it cannot possibly understand.

Making a (perfume) counter argument.

When Fonny’s legal bills begin to mount, Frank Hunt and Joseph Rivers begin plotting a way to protect their children from a system rigged against them. “You can hustle,” Joseph tells Frank. “I can hustle. We have to do it for our children. So they can be free.” Joseph is not merely talking about prison. Similarly, Tish speaks about the burden of living with all of this weight upon them. “We have to live it,” she tells the audience, “so our children can be free.”

For the most part, Jenkins’ direction matches and compliments Baldwin’s prose. It takes a very talented director to guide a camera through an empty space and move the audience with nothing more than possibility. As the camera moves through an empty still-under-construction loft that Fonny and Tish hope to make their home, Jenkins allows the audience to take in the vastness of the surroundings, the raw potential. There are no walls yet to box them in, no structures already in place. This empty space allows Fonny and Tish to imagine their world in complete freedom.

A familiar dance.

At the same time, there are moments when Jenkins isn’t able to perfectly translate or compliment Baldwin’s vision to the screen. If Beale Street Could Talk is prone to wander off on tangents, to get distracted, to suddenly branch off in strange directions. The narrative is largely episodic, with characters drifting into and out of focus as movie needs them to, leading to awkward juxtapositions like Tish monologuing over an extended sequence in which her mother flies to Puerto Rico.

This is a sprawling novelistic approach, almost too unfocused for a film like this. It is entirely possible to tell a single story that branches and arcs in strange and unforeseen directions, but the emotional weight of If Beale Street Could Talk is so firmly centred on Fonny and Tish that it almost feels like a betrayal for the camera to wander away from them, even to enrich and develop the world, and even when it is possible that Tish is reconstructing events from accounts provided by other people.

Serving up a (Puerto) Rico indictment.

If Beale Street Could Talk never quite gets away from Jenkins. He is too skilled a director to ever allow such a thing to happen. However, there are moments when it feels like If Beale Street Could Talk would benefit from a tighter hand or firmer control. The film also benefits from a superb cast, including supporting performers Regina King, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach and Brian Tyree Henry.

However, the best work comes from the two leads; KiKi Layne and Stephan James are mesmerising in the lead roles. As much as any director working, Jenkins understands the power of cinema as an empathy machine, and he fills If Beale Street Could Talk with candid head-on shots of his two leads, trusting them to communicate strength, insecurity, vulnerability, love, affection, sincerity and dignity. Jenkins allows the camera (and the audience) to study the faces of his leads, and they in turn allow the camera (and the audience) to peer into their souls.

Talk of the Street.

If Beale Street Could Talk suffers from some of the issues that haunt overly faithful adaptations of beloved works, a difficulty in translating the core essence smoothly from one medium to another. If Beale Street Could Talk always knows exactly what it is about, but occasionally struggles as a cinematic narrative. Luckily, Jenkins is skilled enough and canny enough that these minor hiccups never develop into a serious structural problem. If Beale Street Could Talk is beautiful enough to leave its audience speechless.

 

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