I have often said that I don't believe in love.
I suppose this isn't true.
I don't understand love. I don't understand the kind of irrevocable trust that sweeps across the screen in Barry Jenkins's extraordinary adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel that some consider a minor Baldwin which makes me laugh as there simply is no minor Baldwin.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the first English language adaptation of Baldwin's writings, writings that crackle and simmer with the raging authenticities of racial inequities so wide and so broad that they weigh down the soul and trample on the hopes and dreams of black Americans. They do, of course, to this day. We know this, though we continue to not give a damn about it.
Jenkins captures these racial inequities, perhaps with even more force capturing an apathetic society unwilling to do anything to address them, yet it's undeniably true that If Beale Street Could Talk is more than anything a love story. It's the kind of love story that makes you understand love. It's the kind of love story that makes you understand how two people, weighed down by everything that society can throw at them, can survive and thrive and hope and dream despite none of these things actually making sense.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the kind of film that makes you understand love because it bathes you in a world where love is how you survive. Love is raw and tender, gritty and truthful. It's a film that makes you understand that love is how we survive whatever it is life throws at us, whether it's the racial inequities of a system armed and loaded to keep you down or, as in my case, it's the institutionalized and culturally affirmed stereotypes that disability is inability and different is abnormal.
I grew up with Baldwin's work, first reading The Fire Next Time while attending a high school that had been exempted from court-ordered desegregation because it was already a culturally diverse academic setting. I grew up in one of my school district's more diverse neighborhoods, yet I suppose my real immersion into the black experience as a child came from being raised by largely black nurses at the urban hospital where I was born and where I spent much of my early years as a baby born in the mid-60's with spina bifida, a birth defect that could have and should have killed me.
I ran into one of these nurses not long ago, a woman now in her 80's who looked into my eyes and immediately pronounced my name despite having cared for me fifty years ago.
There we go. That's the kind of love that I don't understand.
I just don't.
I am not black, but I have always found myself on the fringes of the black community whether it was attending a 95% black university or in the very neighborhood where I've lived for over ten years surrounded by mostly black neighbors.
All this, yet I don't understand the black experience just as many of those immersed in my world do not and cannot understand the disability experience.
Empathy, I suppose, is where I come from if I had to put a word to it.
That's a feeling I felt often while watching this masterful film centered around 19-year-old Tish (newcomer Kiki Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James), whom Jenkins introduces to us with the giddiness and the innocence of a young love that would be more than enough to justify a full-length motion picture even if we did not know that would be more to come.
There is more to come, of course. It happens first in the announcement that Tish, a good churchgoing girl, is pregnant. It's an announcement that is met with righteous rage by Fonny's ultra-conservative mother (Aunjanue Ellis), while Tish's mother, played to stunning perfection by Regina King, at first bristles before allowing her maternal instincts to guide her response.
Tish and Fonny give us the kind of love we instantly believe in, a love so jarringly intimate that it makes you want to be in love. Jenkins has long been open about his appreciation for the works of Wong Kar-wai and If Beale Street Could Talk will unquestionably bring to mind In the Mood for Love, both films enveloped by lush, emotive colors and the communicative power of a silence that speaks far more than the spoken word ever could. When you add into this language the quiet, understated score of Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk becomes a film that says much even when it's not saying much.
When Fonny is arrested for a rape that he did not commit, the story could head off into your usual Hollywood bastardized storytelling but somehow never does.
I suppose it's not "somehow." It's Baldwin. It's Baldwin and it's Jenkins's understanding of Baldwin, often incorporating Baldwin's own language into the dialogue because you can't improve upon perfection.
Jenkins has also long appreciated unknown actors, perhaps proof positive that he's an actor's director and that pays tremendous dividends with the remarkable Kiki Layne. Layne captures Tish's innocence, not quite wide-eyed but fully surrendered even as her eyes become increasingly open to the brutal realities of the world around her. The up-and-coming Stephan James is a perfect companion for her here, tasked with the more emotive and expressive role he leaves us in awe as the soul of his character gets chipped away by the institutionalized abuses rip into his facade.
It is Regina King who truly leaves us in awe here, though it must be stated that If Beale Street Could Talk features one of the year's finest cinematic ensembles. This is meant to be an ensemble motion picture and Jenkins doesn't allow it to become a starring vehicle for anyone. The actors clearly understand all of this, embrace it, and find their places within the film's tapestry.
There is so much more that could be said and should be said about If Beale Street Could Talk, a masterful film from a masterful filmmaker whose two Academy Awards for Moonlight may very well require construction of an even longer awards shelf in the very near future. Yes, If Beale Street Could Talk is that good.
But, I don't want to say anything else. I want you to experience the film for yourself. It's a film that demands that even if you're familiar with the Baldwin novel upon which the film is based. It's a film that demands your own immersion, not that influenced by some well-meaning film journalist interpreting the film through his own eyes.
If Beale Street Could Talk demands your own eyes, yet it demands that those eyes be wide open to the harsh truths of the black experience and the power of love to overcome these truths even when these truths can't be overcome. If Beale Street Could Talk believes in love and hope, faith and family, resilience and the unspoken truths stronger than the institutions and inequities that surround us.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic