If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

Every so often, the characters in Barry Jenkins's anguished and mournful "If Beale Street Could Talk" look straight at the camera, and at you. In some movies, this kind of direct address can seem conspiratorial, suggesting that you and a character are in on a joke. Elsewhere, these gazes seem accusatory, assaultive, beseeching; here, most feel intimate and inviting, but also expansive. When two lovers look at each other in this movie, the tenderness in their eyes softens everything, creating a radiance that folds around them like a blanket, blunting the world. You feel the warmth, the softness, too.

One of the most pivotal looks in the movie is directed at the 22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James, a heartbreaker) as he stands in a pale swirl of cigarette smoke next to a sculpture he's creating. A haunting, somewhat elusive man known as Fonny, he turns wood, stone and metal into art, and is similarly transforming his identity as a black man in America. He dreams, sleeps and makes art and love in a West Village basement apartment with no charm and a bathtub in the middle of it. Now, as he faces his work, the camera circles Fonny as smoke billows around him in the opposite direction.

This is Jenkins's third feature-length movie and his follow-up to "Moonlight," which announced him as a major American filmmaker. He wrote and directed "Beale Street," closely adapting it from the 1974 James Baldwin novel. The story tracks Fonny and Tish's life together, starting around the time she realizes she's pregnant. As it hopscotches around, jumping from the present to the past and back, it replays scenes from their shared childhood in Harlem and, after their friendship turns to romance, their budding life together. The story eventually focuses on the present with Fonny in jail and Tish fighting — with help from their families — to get him released.

In most white screen romances, the love between a man and a woman (and its tests) tends to be framed in personal terms, as a matter of individual will, of good or foolish choices of the heart and head. The greater world always presses in on the star-crossed lovers even when the movie pretends otherwise, shaping or just quietly tugging at their story. Here, the world — white, pitiless, punishing — comes down like a hammer on Fonny and Tish. Because no matter the purity and grace of their love when they wander the Village, or eat in a friendly Spanish restaurant that was a Baldwin favorite, they are never simply two people in love but also an affront to the power of the white world.

In "Beale Street," Jenkins is inviting you to look deeply at these men and women, to see how they look to, and at, each other. He does this primarily through an expressionist visual style that can make words superfluous. The ethereal vision of Fonny wreathed in smoke isn't only striking; it exalts this moment and communicates its evanesce, turning emotion and thought into image. A sensitive colorist, Jenkins's work here is subtler than in "Moonlight," though he again uses it to deepen the mood and transmit ideas: the life-affirming green associated with Tish's family; the blue and gold that Fonny and Tish wear when they first pledge themselves to each other — colors that later resurface in jail.

— Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

If Beale Street Could Talk

Sponsored by Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS)

Wed November 8, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium

United States of America, 2018, in English, 120 min • official site

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Director: Barry Jenkins, Novel: James Baldwin, Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo

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