The heart of If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ much-anticipated follow up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight, is apparent from its opening scene. Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), a young black couple in love, hold hands as they stroll across a secluded New York City waterfront. Their colors of their clothes and skin — warm, sensuous yellows, oranges and browns — mimic the tender intensity of their blossoming love. The music swells and the camera focuses straight on both Tish and Fonny, beckoning us to see them in an intimate light.
If the sequence feels dream-like, or like an all-too-perfect respite from the normalized chaos of New York, the effect is intentional. Jenkins’ work, despite mining the anguish of systemized injustice, is unabashedly sentimental and loving, not only in contrast to the everyday racism his characters face but in direct response to it. There’s the sense here, and in Moonlight, that these moments of transcendent beauty and vulnerability are necessary tonics to a world of unrelenting cruelty. And so Tish and Fonny profess their love, and simply because such pure declarations are rare in relation to black lives on screen, the moment feels undeniably radical.
This isn’t to confuse If Beale Street Could Talk‘s emotional clarity for sentimentality. Tish and Fonny’s respite is short, and soon enough Fonny is looking at Tish from behind a glass wall. He’s been arrested and sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish, just 19, is pregnant with his baby. Following the influence of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name (to which the film’s narrative strictly abides), the plot is disjointed and nonlinear. The scenes of Fonny behind bars come months after the scenes of him and Tish together, and yet on film the sequences often come one after the other. This balancing act of love and hate is subtle but potent. Even with the period details of ’70s-era Harlem in place, Jenkins’ script feels unbound by the constricting logic of time. It suggests that black trauma, as alive today as it was then, is as much part of the America’s fabric as it is an extremely personal experience of perpetual abuse.
After realizing that she’s pregnant, Tish is nervous about telling her parents. She and Fonny aren’t yet legally married, and Fonny’s family looks down on the pair as a couple (Fonny’s petulant sisters say that he “ain’t never been worth shit”). But Tish’s family is open-minded and strong spirited; her mother (Regina King) welcomes her child wholeheartedly, her sister (Teyonah Parris) implores her to take pride in herself and her father (Colman Domingo) quickly comes around to the idea after a stunned silence. The aura among Tish’s immediate family is one of unconditional love and solidarity, and the scene is imbued with an immense, albeit temporary, comfort. It’s not long, though, before Fonny’s parents and sisters are called over and the illusion of harmony is shattered.
Among If Beale Street Could Talk‘s greatest strengths is its ability to convey two competing ideas simultaneously: black solidarity and hate within the black community, for example. In the scene announcing Tish’s pregnancy, Tish’s family represents a hard-fought battle for dignity while Fonny’s family represents the influence of a manipulative society pitting members of the same subjugated class against one another. Fonny’s independence is challenged from all sides; society at large wants him controlled and manipulated, and his own family wants him to be pious and subservient even in the face of his own oppression. But when not with Tish, Fonny is shown working in his studio (he creates sculptures), and the light in his apartment bathes him in an ethereal glow. It suggests that, when alone and sheltered, he has everything he needs to shine.
Fonny’s apartment happens to be the backdrop to two of the film’s most crucial scenes. After a date one day, he and Tish make love for the first time in his bed. Although the yellow glow of previous scenes makes way for dark, tentative shadows, the sense of the space as a haven persists. The sex scene itself is gorgeous and quietly revolutionary, laden with Tish’s quiet anxiety and Fonny’s patience. It’s passionate, but not overtly lustful. One gets the sense that it’s possibly the most vulnerable either have ever been with another person.
But there’s another scene in Fonny’s apartment, also taking place before Fonny’s arrest. Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), a long-time friend, runs into Fonny on the street and joins him back at his place for drinks. Daniel is, in contrast to Fonny, jovial and loud, and carries with him a sense of pride. Back at the apartment, the camera fixates on both characters inquisitively and compassionately. After a moment, Daniel admits to Fonny that he just got out of prison himself after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit (he was caught with some pot, but the police convinced him to admit to a different crime). Henry is a revelation in the scene, letting his eyes convey the unspeakable trauma he’s endured and offering his words as a warning. Fonny understands the implication — that, broadly speaking, America hates its own black citizens — all too well, and yet the specific torture of prison is one that he hasn’t yet had to experience. That we know that he soon will is enormously heartbreaking.
Even with the crux of its narrative focused on the relationship between Tish and Fonny, If Beale Street Could Talk‘s supporting characters are called on to carry a lot of thematic weight. Tish’s mother, Sharon, and her father, Joseph, remain determined to an impressive degree, with Sharon eventually traveling to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser and with Joseph relying on old tricks (stealing, little by little) to fund Tish’s legal expenses. King, playing Sharon, is especially noteworthy in her role, channeling both a world-weary hardiness and a selfless empathy. When she does finally meet Fonny’s accuser, she’s desperate for answers but, ultimately, understanding of the woman’s plight. The woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), is humanized instead of vilified, and suggests, with her pressured false testimony, another kind of systemized persecution. She, too, is a woman of color in a world controlled by white men.
Although there’s certainly more to the story, the specifics are only part of the point. Like Baldwin’s novels and essays, If Beale Street Could Talk stands for itself and for something much greater. It’s a quietly astonishing film, and a near-perfect success both as a grand statement of solidarity and as a gorgeously wrought, long-overdue story of black life and black love.