If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk opens with a quote from the eponymous book. It talks of New Orleans, the origin of jazz and the rhythm that narrates the Black American experience. Baldwin proposes the rhythm as a language, hard to set down but, if drummed with eloquence, then perhaps the White man might just vibe to it. Barry Jenkins picks up the baton and takes it to the stand.
After winning the 2017 Best Picture with the beautifully crafted Moonlight, Barry Jenkins looked to adapt an older story on similar themes. Beale Street, like Moonlight, is a love story with pathos to burn. The wider narrative navigates the possibility of happiness and innocence for black lives in a white world. A white world where systems of trust and justice do not match in application to those across the racial divide. The lack of trust keeps black lives on the outside and the justice system brings the same lives into custodial restraint. The measure of that tragedy is explored by the disrupted relationship of Tish and Fonny and their respective families, who struggle to keep it all together. Jenkins’ take on the novel brings all the rich emotional depth that his filmmaking is capable of. However, he loses the sticking quality of that depth as he changes through the perspectives in the story.
The distance between Moonlight and Beale Street is the stretch in focus. In his Oscar winning second feature we have a single focus of direction. By exploring one man’s development, through a small cast and a refined plot, Jenkins exploits the space in Moonlight for powerful emotions to percolate through. Many of the scenes could have had the audience bursting into tears while the scene played out. Instead, the editing is cruel. The scenes end before the emotional payoff and the cathartic blast is substituted for a creeping percolation of the crippling pain that Chiron traveled through, right up to the end. It gave the film cohesion and a lasting resonance of its emotional depth. What we find in the director’s treatment of Beale Street though is a splitting of the orchestra. There are two performances going on in Beale Street, setting different rhythms.
We have the tragic romance of Tish and Fonny - our lovers who dominate the central narrative and yet seem to be stuck . Our time with them has the hushed tones of a religious experience, as they talk in angelic quiet tones and make pure promises to each other. The tragedy of their story is built on a predetermined lapsarian moment. Fonny is falsely accused of sexual assault; Tish announces her pregnancy; and the weight of it all earths their relationship from its heavenly repose. Tish’s voice narrates the film. As a 19 year old, her voice is light and flutters with the traditional timbre of innocence. The text of the narration however suggests a different voice: one that looks back and bemoans with a light protest said many times and every time quieter. If Tish has earnt that voice by the end of the film then we do not see it and by the end the pair do not walk the rocky path to develop into anything other than a pair of robbed innocents.
The other side of the story involves the family and their efforts to try and fix the predicament of the innocent couple. The assembly of cast consists of the heavy hitters that can carry that pathos. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) rises to the mark and aims her sights for justice and avails the mighty emotional claims to set their predicament straight. Meanwhile the couple’s respective fathers plot in wiley jive tones as how to raise the funds to pay for Fonny’s lawyer. There is a split in tone to the angelic couple. This is the swearing, slapping, hustling and hollering side of life that has arisen from struggling alongside a system designed to reject you. This side of life tries to make everything just secure enough to sustain a space for innocence and its rhythm is the voice of Blackness. It is the power in gospel, the trickery in jive and the improvisation in jazz.
Where the two tones could be employed as a syncopation of competing and interwoven layers, Jenkins doesn’t get the exchange right. The music in the film betrays the clash. Being set in the late 60’s early 70’s, the record player is a very good visual cue for home. The Soul that gets played in the bars and apartments becomes a symbolic voice for the space that has been claimed for Black life and the resilience. Then there is the Charlie Parker that Fonny plays in his apartment and the lyrical saxophone that spells out all the romance for the couple’s love scene. These are instances where there is balance and purpose. However, the majority of Tish and Fonny’s story is buffeted by a loud string section that has all the schmaltz of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. That rhythm is unrooted and indulgent, and its recurrence disrupts the progression of the film. We know love is holy, but the fight for love is what we want to be devoted to.
Despite the faults of the film, the pace and poise attempted in Beale Street is evocative of Jenkins skill at telling a Black story that is full of love and pain. The rhythm of Beale Street is a quiet protest, a departure in speed and pace from other Black directors. There’s none of the chaos and spiky Brooklyn flow that Spike Lee plays on for mouthy power. There’s no glossy muscle from Ryan Coogler, spraying a mythic nobility on to formula bound heroes. There’s no Boots Riley madcap P-funk slap, slamming pierced tongue into ulcerated cheek. Jenkins goes for those slower, lower and more lyrical notes that concave your chest and make you beg for lasting contact. The kind that Jenkin’s characters never get. There’s no route to power here but a crushing yearning for solace.