I don’t know why, as an 11-year-old, I heard Billie Joe Armstrong and thought, “I wanna be that guy.” And for a couple of years, I really did. I wanted to write rockin’ pop songs that were both accessible and thoughtful. I started making music as soon as I could. But tastes change. Green Day becomes Pink Floyd, and they become Death Cab for Cutie. And then American Football becomes a must. What has never changed, in nearly 13 years, is the need to write and hear myself. To know I’m alive and that I’m not totally crazy. Songwriting is the love that has carried me through breakups and screw-ups alike, through life and death, through loneliness and peace. For me, making music has always made sense.
Look, Tish and Fonny are to true love what I am to Leonard Cohen. Which is to say, are these remotely fair comparisons? Probably not, but neither party is going to stop trying. Because holding on to what is known and true is the real core of If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’s dazzling romance of two young Harlem lovers, fighting a legal battle when one is accused of rape. Jenkins’s hotly-anticipated follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight, adapted from novel of the same name by the venerable James Baldwin, and only his third film thus far, If Beale Street Could Talk is as lyrical and spellbinding as could be, rapturous and bittersweet in equal measure–and, if nothing else, proves Jenkins may very well be among the most vital filmmakers of his generation.
When we meet Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), they’re walking through a part of Harlem that overlooks the neighborhood. They’re side by side, in a God’s-eye-POV. And to be sure, their union has an unmistakably angelic quality–certainly, Nicholas Britell’s swelling, otherworldly orchestrations plays no small role. Tish and Fonny, above their home at the golden hour, with no other sign of life, are blissfully, unabashedly, maybe even stupidly in love. And one can’t help but believe in their love. The top of the film, which almost exists outside of time, sets records for quickest a picture can evoke tears. If not the scene, that delirious sensation Jenkins conjures in those opening minutes carries the rest of the film; A harsher, more complicated story that tests Tish and Fonny, as well as their families.
What follows that warm prologue is the grim and de-saturated confines of a prison, where Fonny is awaiting trial. Tish looks through to Fonny–tantalizingly close, separated by a mere sheet of glass–as she gives him the news of her pregnancy with their child. Fonny is elated. So are Tish’s family–her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). When Tish and her folks break the news to Fonny’s family, however, the tone is less celebratory. While Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) is thrilled, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) raises concerns regarding the welfare of their child, while getting in some barbs fueled by Christian zealotry. The whole scene is practically stage-bound–and really, so are many stretches of If Beale Street Could Talk. But because there are so many characters in Sharon’s and Frank’s tiny apartment, and because neither side is totally wrong, the segment crackles with life.
As Tish and company do their darndest to mount Fonny’s defense, we see flashbacks to Tish’s and Fonny’s budding romance. Borrowing largely from Brief Encounter, the film is told almost entirely from Tish’s point-of-view. If If Beale Street Could Talk has one shortcoming, the film really shortchanges Tish. Though she is the narrator, we don’t know anything other than she is mild-mannered, and deeply, ferociously in love with Fonny. She’ll stand up for Fonny to literally anyone, and in those moments, Tish is at her most realized. Kiki Layne does what she can with Tish, but that thinness shows. Fonny isn’t much better, but at least he’s a sculptor, and we get a sense that he worries about his role as a provider and protector for Tish. Other women in the story have arcs and personalities, but Tish comes off as underdeveloped.
This might because of the lovers’ ages. Tish is 19, while Fonny is 22. They’re young, best friends who grew up together, and whose love–at least according to Tish–transcends the physical. Jenkins frames their relationship with a sort of tragic frustration, these two just barely out of reach. To say Barry Jenkins borrows heavily from Wong Kar-wai is damn-near trite by this point. But that same sense of dreaminess–as well as actual dreams–permeates If Beale Street Could Talk–specifically evoking In the Mood for Love: another story of impeded romance. Tish and Fonny should have their whole lives ahead of them. They should be able to see the world, not be kept in the same small corner they’ve been in their whole lives. They should be able to take their time, maybe find out that they aren’t meant to be. But because they’re all they have, and they don’t have money ,and can’t find a place who will rent to a young black couple. Why wouldn’t Tish and Fonny cling to each other for dear life?
Tish’s family, as well as Frank, remain committed to exonerating Fonny. Even their lawyer Mr. Hayward (Finn Wittrock) goes pretty easy on them, fighting hard for Fonny’s innocence. Yet, the film is fighting against insurmountable odds. Hayward gets a lot of pushback from the district attorney, and slowly alienates himself from his colleagues. Even Fonny’s accuser Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios)–who was likely coerced into fingering Fonny–is taken back to Puerto Rico to her family. This to say nothing of Fonny’s arresting officer (the perpetually evil Ed Skrein), who has gone after Fonny in the past. And when Fonny is in prison, suffering unseen horrors, that isolation is felt.
At the center of the film is this need for community, for oneness. Getting Fonny off takes a village. So does supporting Tish through her pregnancy. At one point, Joseph and Frank take to stealing clothes and selling them on the streets. In a lot of ways, the film is just about helping each other who can’t do things by themselves. Look no further than the reference to New Orleans’s Beale Street–the origin of black America in the U.S. When we see characters at their most uncertain, they’re typically at their loneliest, as well. Whether this is Tish telling her family about the impending baby, or Sharon’s stint in Puerto Rico–a truly devastating vignette by itself. Only Fonny finds peace by himself, and that’s only through his art, his ability to express himself. Even in introspection, If Beale Street Could Talk is a story about being heard, and hearing others. Sometimes, that just comes down to a feeling.
Throughout the film, Tish’s narration underscores photographs of the active oppression of black people. A history that is as contemporary to Tish as the history the audience in the present is currently witnessing. I’m reminded of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, another fragmented commentary on blackness in America. Both Beale Street and TPAB end on an ambiguous, embattled note, one summarized sharply with Lamar’s “When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” What are the lengths and limits of love? Even when we are tested by those we love, can we ever rest? If we’re trapped, are we better for being trapped together? Tish and Fonny are acutely aware of this, and so is the audience. We’re reminded of the normal life Tish and Fonny almost had, knowing that their already-uphill battle is even steeper. If all they can do is try to navigate a system that treats them unjustly, that wants to corner them, maybe having each other is enough to do great and improbable things.