There’s a palpitating, almost heavenly warmth to If Beale Street Could Talk that, despite its story’s tragic nature, gifts it an emotional resonance few films this year have even come close to attaining. Be it the response of a nation struggling through the murky depression of the Trump Years™, or just an irregular splotch in the cyclical world of art (it’s the former), many films this year have shared an invariably cynical and cloudy characteristic. And, naturally, you would expect a film about racial injustice in 1970’s Harlem 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 instead able to use the beauty of one couple’s star-crossed romance and the purity in their families’ support to shine a vivid ray of light through the impenetrable storm-clouds surrounding all of us.
That’s not to say If Beale Street Could Talk, the film adaption of civil-rights icon James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, is not fiercely critical of society and furious at the abject hopelessness facing 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 emotional 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. This frustration and the grip it holds over the people of Beale Street 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 has been falsely accused of rape and must now do the impossible: battle through the hopeless underbelly of the New York judicial system to absolve himself of a crime everyone “knows” he commited. To make matters more complicated Tish is pregnant with his baby, and with the help of her cash-strapped family must find a way to fight to maintain her strength and save her lover and her future. Yet while this grim situation threatens to break our characters, Jenkins is careful to prevent despair from overpowering the flickering light behind the doors on Beale Street. After all, the criminal injustice is a distraction from life for our characters, not life itself. Life, Jenkins argues, is given meaning by beauty and hope and joy, and while that will never negate the omnipresent tyranny of oppression, for our characters it is nevertheless the reason to fight, and the reason to live.
Steeping his shots in the melting blush of a setting sun and flooding the film in a torrent of euphorically entrancing close-ups and slow-mos that wring every drop of humanity from a mesmerizing cast, Jenkins is able to paint this combative yet optimistic dance of vulnerability and belonging in every scene without fail. To say this is monumentally ambitious would be the understatement of the century, because to do this Jenkins refuses to play by the old rules–the easy rules. Showing civil rights protestors singing songs in the face of southern cops is one thing, but to prove this philosophical tug-of-war between hope and despair through the artistic recreation of everyday life is something else entirely.
And prove it he does.
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 equally fantastic as Tish’s mom and dad, respectively), and even to arguments over the threat of racism, this emotional struggle hits home with every single beat of the film’s heart. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that overarching these scenes is the hands-down best score of the year; Marco Beltrami’s occulant, melodic whimsey flutters high and low in a bitter-sweet recreation of love and perfectly solidifies the connections between these moments.
I wrote last week about the similarly racially focused film Green Book. In my review, I acknowledged the film’s racial naivety but concluded that I nevertheless liked it. I honestly still do. But to compare it to Beal Street in general terms is almost an impossibility. It is the difference between entertainment and art. The difference between whitewash and truth. The difference between Hollywood and black America. So while I don’t find myself growing resentful at Green Book for its racial deficiencies, every second that flies by I can’t help but see Green Book as more and more hollow. It is the norm, the status quo. And Beale Street has shown another way. Ambitiously daring to paint the honest romanticism life can hold for black-Americans in a way few films have ever done before, Beale Street rejects the pedantic condescension that resides in the vast majority of the films about racism and instead showers 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 Johansson in Lost in Translation) and a possibly realistic yet unsatisfyingly abrupt ending regretfully 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. After a year of movies wallowed in the despondent mud of cynicism, If Beale Street Could Talk serves as an emphatic reminder of the beauty of movies and humanity that supersedes all else.