If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

314 If Beale Street Could Talk

Narrative films favor the particular over the universal; in other words, they are grounded in detail rather than poetic expression. If you prefer action-based narrative, you may be disappointed with the drama-romance If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). But if you allow yourself to be immersed in its universal imagery and expressive density you may come away with a visceral sense of the Black-American experience.

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, the film’s timeframe could as easily be 2019 as the ‘70s. The storyline is ultra-simple although the timeline is fluid and disjointed, frequently flashing back and forward to disconnect the particular and give voice to the universal. We meet two long-time friends on the cusp of serious romance: 19-year old virgin Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year old sculptor Fonny (Stephan James). While shopping, Tish is harassed by a white man, a scuffle ensues, and a racist cop wants to arrest Fonny. Later that night, a black woman is raped and Fonny is falsely accused and imprisoned. The rest of the film explores the couple’s relationship while they live on opposite sides of a prison gate and Tish fights for justice.

With a thin and fractured narrative arc, a low tension-curve, and a pace bordering on tedious, what makes this film special? One short answer is KiKi Layne. Her debut performance is haunting, with wide open, piercingly honest eyes looking out from a canvas of innocent love and undeserved suffering. Without her, the film would have no soul. Stephen James and the all-Black American ensemble orbit around her like a constellation of ordinary, hysterical, and painful satellites. In this banal fabric of small and large happenings, all threads lead to KiKi.

Another short answer is the cinematography, particularly the way it employs close-up framing and wafer-thin depth of field. There is unique intensity when a frame fills with another person’s face. A pair of eyes gazing point-blank to camera make the viewer feel watched; at the same time, we watch empathetically through those eyes. When Fonny’s family invites Tish’s to hear of her pregnancy, it’s a collision of values as the camera darts onto every face in quick succession, drawing us into the midst of a melee. At other times, the camera becomes a sensual paintbrush of great delicacy: the beautiful childbirth scene is a memorable example. Throughout the film, the camera often lingers in prolonged silence, drawing us into an empty space that invites feeling, not just seeing.

Traditional narrative offers closure for those who stay the course, but this film’s inconclusive climax is a metaphor for the ongoing normalisation of injustice in countless life stories on all the Beale Streets in Black America. A satisfying ending would be dishonest to its subject;  what we are left with are feelings rather than thoughts. This is not an entertainment experience, but a serious film that rewards investment. And like all poetic works, its message lies well beyond what we see.


Director:  Barry Jenkins

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King