The camera moves in a way I’ve rarely seen in If Beale Street Could Talk. Actually, it hardly seems to move at all, until you notice that it’s ever-so-slowly drifting up, or down, or slightly off to the side. It’s woozy, lulling—almost like a dandelion seed that’s haphazardly floating about in a gentle breeze.
This aesthetic approach might seem at odds with the forceful, fraught story the movie tells. Adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) from the 1974 James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is set in 1970s Harlem and centers on a troubled young couple: Fonny (Stephan James), who is awaiting trial in prison after being falsely accused of rape; and his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne), who is desperately working to clear his name while also carrying their child. This is at once a very personal story about these two young people—as well as the family members, Tish’s in particular, who lovingly surround them—and a narrative that stands in for the larger African-American experience (something Jenkins makes clear with montages of archival photographs of young black men being railroaded through the United States justice system).
Yet what lingers from If Beale Street Could Talk is not a sense of rage or injustice. The only real nod to the anger that was more prominent in Baldwin’s book is a striking moment where Fonny, having endured yet another instance of discrimination, throws a bag of tomatoes against a brick wall—an action the camera traces with an uncharacteristically quick pan. Even as it follows the present-day developments of Fonny’s case, the movie pays equal attention to Fonny and Tish’s romantic time together, before his arrest. It’s a choice that may feel strange to some, as outrage was the preferred emotional response to just about everything in 2018. Other movies from this year, ranging from Sorry to Bother You to BlacKkKlansman to Black Panther, were far more pointedly, angrily political about black life in America. Yet it makes sense that Jenkins—a filmmaker who has cited Wong Kar-wai, that master of longing, as one of his major influences—would offer something different. If Beale Street Could Talk is less interested in railing against systemic racism than lamenting the everyday goodness that is lost when racism carries the day.
The camerawork is woozy, lulling—almost like a dandelion seed that’s haphazardly floating about in a gentle breeze.
Which brings us back to those camera movements. Often, that weak-kneed feel mirrors Tish’s gaze while looking at Fonny. If James, as Fonny, seems to give the film’s standout performance—amongst strong work by Layne as Tish and Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris as her mother, father, and sister—it’s because the camera itself is smitten with him. The film also employs frequent close-ups, especially when Tish visits Fonny in prison, and they serve as adoring portraits, allowing us to see each lover through the other’s eyes.
In the pre-prison scenes set in Fonny’s basement apartment, which doubles as his woodworking studio, cinematographer James Laxton employs a soft, amber glow. It’s as if this quiet place is a womb for Fonny and Tish, insulation from the life under occupation that they experience outside. The music too—by Nicholas Britell, who like Laxton worked on Moonlight—is embracing, enveloping, as are the diegetic songs that we hear from the record players in Fonny’s room and at Tish’s parents’ house.
All of this goodness—this love, this closeness, this warmth—is stolen when Fonny is targeted and taken away. By immersing us so fully in Fonny and Tish’s life, If Beale Street Could Talk makes the loss they suffer all the more deeply felt. The result is a wrenchingly beautiful film, and an enraging one in its own way.