A disclaimer written by James Baldwin shows on screen stating that Beale Street is the home of Jazz, and the birthplace of Louis Armstrong- simultaneously alluding to the titular area’s history and standing within the Black community. A message which is integral to director Barry Jenkin’s latest film, an impressive adaptation of James Baldwin’s romantic tragedy focusing on two young black lovers and the challenges they face in 70s Harlem. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film filled with quiet rage, relying on implicit contrasts and emotive performances to deliver a plaintive message of hope against adversity.
Near the beginning of the film we arrive at the conclusion of this conflict, with the film’s central couple Alfonso (Stephen James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) separated by a prison visitation room’s glass. It’s also within these harsh confines that Tish breaks the news that she’s expecting his child, a joyous moment weighed upon by a wrongful arrest. Swiftly setting the tone for Beale Street which explores the events that led to this moment in illusory flashbacks, and desperate searches for the truth in the current.
As the film approaches Alfonso’s trial, it explores America’s inherent racism whilst never allowing itself to wallow in the misery of its subject matter. The characters must be resilient to survive in an unfair nation, aware they must keep moving forward or allow themselves to fall below the undertow of a crooked police force backed by a rigged judicial system. It makes for tough watching, especially as Tish’s pregnancy reaches later stages and her emotional turmoil is matched by a physical pain. Beale Street does find a lot of time for humour within its portrayal of America though, driven by its excellent supporting cast. Characters such as Tish’s father Joseph (Colman Domingo) have suffered through the system for decades, and as such approach revelations like his nineteen-year-old daughter’s pregnancy with a trepidatious joy- believing any moment of hope should be celebrated. The younger characters are yet to reach this stage but understand the importance of masking the pain they’ve encountered. This is felt especially through a meeting between Alfonso and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where they reminisce cheerfully over beer and smokes the times they’ve had, before the brutal reality of Daniel’s disappearance comes to light. Yet, he continues to joke with Tish aware of the joy she brings to Alfonso’s life and not wanting to corrupt her innocence needlessly.
Beale Street’s greatest asset is its humane nature, achieved both through Jenkin’s understanding screenplay of Baldwin’s novel, and the technical skill on show. Cinematographer James Laxton, who also worked on Jenkin’s debut Moonlight, manages to connect brutal reality with nostalgia drenched flashbacks seamlessly. The former is shown more through static shots, focusing upon the character’s surroundings as they plan their next moves. Meanwhile, the past takes on a dreamlike quality with constant camera movement suggesting a joyous energy found remembering better times instead of confronting current problems. These sections also use shallow depth of field within shots resulting in a lot of close ups as the two lovers reach the peak of their infatuation. That is further displayed through the centring of shots upon them as the bustling New York travels around the edges of the frame unobserved. Both these sections contain powerful use of colour, ever present but muted in a metaphor for the hushed lives they are unwillingly forced to live.
The music usage within the film is similarly impressive, as Nicholas Britell’s orchestral score swells under the youthful romance, before reaching crescendo at their most intimate moments. It also plays with some more discordant styles as the plot goes to more challenging places with equal expertise. This adaptability produces one of the most beautiful moments of contrast within the film, as Tish and Alfonso travel on the underground after an especially intimate scene. The score is a delicate arrangement, just barely able to be heard over the mechanical repetition of the carriage racing through the tunnel. A brutal reminder of the temporary bliss that they exist in forever being intruded by their unforgiven city.
With If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has delivered an awe inspiring second feature. Reserved but driven by a righteous anger, romantic but realistic, it’s a film of painful contrasts delivered subtly and lovingly. This is the first time that Baldwin’s work has been adapted into English, and it has set an exceptionally high bar for future attempts.