There’s a palpitating, almost heavenly warmth to If Beale Street Could Talk that despite its stories more tragic elements allows the film to touch the hearts of its viewers in a way few films this year have even come close to. Be it the response of a murky world bereft of hope or even a hint of levity in the age of Trump, or just a splotch of randomness in the cyclical world of art (it’s the former), movies this year have strongly shared an invariably cynical and cloudy element. And, naturally, you would expect a film about racial injustice in pre-civil rights America to carry on this trend. But with a brilliant warmth that elicits the tranquil bliss of a late summer-evening stroll– in other words with the soothing glow of love– Moonlight creator Barry Jenkins is able to use the beauty of one couple’s star-crossed romance and their families’ support to shine a vivid ray of light through the impenetrable storm-clouds that surround them.
That’s not to say that If Beale Street Could Talk, the film adaption of civil-rights icon James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, is not fiercely critical of society and furious at the abject hopelessness that faces so many black Americans. Cutting the story of our lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) up into little pieces before swirling them around in a trifle of poetic dichotomy, the scenes of graceful love dance with the smell of roses just as much as the scenes of societal abuse sting with the pain of inescapable frustration. That frustration, indelibly occurring to reign in the sprouting lives of our characters, appears everywhere from racial oppression in the form of housing discrimination, joblessness, and police abuse, to internal gatekeeping and social strife, but is present nowhere more strongly than in the central conflict of the film.
In a sick twist of fate Fonny– who bears a resemblance to Tom from To Kill a Mockingbird— has been falsely accused of rape and faces a battle seemingly up the slopes of Mount Everest to free himself. To make manners more complicated Tish is pregnant with his baby, and with the help of her cash-strapped family must find a way to fight back and save her lover and her future. Yet while this grim situation threatens to slice our characters at the knees, forcing Tish and her family to move heaven and earth in order to save a once magnetically strong man slowly wilting away behind bars, Jenkins is careful to not let the despair overpower the flickering light behind the doors on Beale Street. After all the criminal injustice is the distraction from life for our characters, not life itself. Life, Jenkins argues, is about the emotions surrounding beauty and hope more than it is about those dictated by bitterness and fear.
Steeping his shots in the melting blush of a setting sun and bathing the film in euphorically entrancing close-ups and slow-mos that wring every drop of humanity from a mesmerizing cast, Jenkins is able to create a similarly sizzling dance of belonging and vulnerability in everything from the passionate lovemaking and courtship between Fonny and Tish, to the crackling back and forth in the Tish household (Regina King and Colman Domingo are both equally fantastic as Tish’s mom and dad respectively), and even to conversations and symbolism over the struggle with race. Overarching these scenes is the hands-down best score of the year, by Marco Beltrami; an occulent, melodic whimsey flutters high and low in a bitter-sweet recreation of the feeling of love that solidifies the connections between these scenes.
And it is the way these scenes connect that allow them to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Where a lesser movie would have been hampered by the clutter of the film’s structure and irresistible temptations towards anger, the remarkable genius of Jenkins is his understanding that all of these moments are defined by very similar, very human emotions born of complex yet generally positive notions. I wrote last week about the bleached yet amicable Green Book, which while fun at the time in retrospect I now see as increasingly hollow compared to a film like Beale Street. In fact no film I can recall watching has ever so ambitiously dared to paint the honest romanticism that life can hold for black-Americans, rejecting the pedantic condescension that finds its home in even the best films that look at racism, and showering its subjects in the same magical purity found in any work of art that looks up in awe at the impossible heights of the human condition. And while, in my opinion, an occasionally underwritten side to Tish in her relationship with Fonny (think doughy-eyed Scarlett Johanson in Lost in Translation) and a possibly realistic yet unsatisfyingly abrupt ending sap Beale Street of enough magic to knock it off the pedestal of “one of the best films in years”, it remains one of the most beautiful and revolutionary films in recent memory for me. And after a year of movies wallowed in the despondent mud of cynicism, If Beale Street Could Talk served an emphatic reminder of the beauty of movies and humanity that supersedes all else.