Beautifully Honest, Then and Now: A Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk"
By Grace Oeth
Barry Jenkins does it again. After the Oscar-winning feature film, “Moonlight”, Jenkins adapts and directs “If Beale Street Could Talk,” inspired by James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. In this beautiful, haunting rendition of a romance set in 1960’s New York, a young black woman, Tish, discovers she is pregnant while her love, Fonny, must reside in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. What Baldwin did then, and what Jenkins does now, is tell an American audience how the country treats a black family, regardless of time. Through a lens both elegant and beautiful, we are delivered what we do and do not expect. Their story keeps us invested, wanting more.
Like in Baldwin’s novel, the writing is simplistic, yet powerful. Every word has meaning. The characters’ feelings shine through the actors’ performances, and any story other than Fonny and Tish’s doesn’t matter. The focus, the light that shone upon them was so fierce at times, that no one could dare look away. With Jenkins’ direction, along with Kiki Layne and Sthpan James’ performances, the audience is lead to hope—as Tish and Fonny are—for a happy ending. We are lead towards that light and happiness of a simple, comfortable life for our characters.
But in the end, we were not surprised. What is so ingenious about this narrative, is that we are given nothing but honesty. The story isn’t aggressive, it’s not in your face. For a piece of fiction, it’s truthful and never wants to give you anything but truth. We understand why the mother cries. We understand why the police officer enforces. We understand why the story ended as it did, because it still happens every day.
The movie, like the book, demonstrates what it is to be human—to exist, to fear, to love. The honesty is still there, and whenever the actors fail to speak, the music rises and becomes its own voice. Nicholas Britell, who collaborated with Jenkins for the musical score of “Moonlight,” enriches the atmosphere with his compositions and envelopes us into this love story. As Fonny and Tish look at each other, the strings swell and you watch them fill with light. But this movie acts differently than any other romance. Typically, when an audience sits down to watch two people fall in love, they expect a happy ending. What “Beale Street” gives us is real life. The ending was both expected and unexpected, and that’s what makes this story so important. Despite the impenetrable love that our characters felt, it could not change how life, and their peers with more access to power, treated them. The narrative is meant to turn your expectations on your head, and reevaluate how stories are told, both fictionally and otherwise. Tish and Fonny’s story gives us nothing but honesty. They are honest about their struggles, the things that keep them going, and their desperate need to love.
The movie starts with a quote from Baldwin about the title of the story. Beale Street isn’t anywhere in New York, where our story takes place; it resides in New Orleans, where jazz was born. Beale Street is an institution, a symbol of everything jazz represents—struggle through beauty. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is undoubtedly, utterly, and brilliantly beautiful, all the while representing the struggle that black people in America face every day. We cannot look away from what this movie presents, because it gives light to a world dripping in darkness. Both Baldwin and Jenkins intend for us to not only see, but they prompt us to act upon what we should not accept as expectation. In his novel, Baldwin wrote, “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”