Tish and Fonny walk hand-in-hand, the halo of an underlit red umbrella hovering above. This is not the dim, dead-hued photography of social realism. It's poetry in motion. The vibrancy of Golden Age Hollywood — and the darkness of those times beneath.
In 2016, Moonlight brought fluid impressionism to its stark and hard-hitting story. Cinematographer James Laxton's colours were as vivid as neon; his cameras as restless as birds. Director Barry Jenkins' follow-up, 60s-set If Beale Street Could Talk, is even more dizzying and beautiful. But it hits twice as hard.
Nevertheless, a perceived pulling of punches has drawn ire from some critics. James Baldwin, the author of Beale Street, was not known for skirting around difficult issues. Nor would he shy away from depicting disturbing content in his novels. Jenkins has adopted a different approach. Often Beale Street's horrors are relegated to verbal description, or only very lightly alluded to. But this is not a betrayal of Baldwin's legacy. It gives the film a discomforting tone without it feeling exploitative.
Jenkins' lightness of touch also emphasises the few occasions on which real photographs of police brutality are displayed. These moments, plain in presentation, have more impact than any number of simulated atrocities. Film is a medium where, in the right hands, a sprained ankle can provoke more horror than a severed head. Jenkins has a keen understanding of this power, and wrings every moment of his films with it. Avoiding shock tactics, he seduces and suggests.
This is, after all, a love story. Beale Street hosts characters who forgive readily, love freely, and are charitable without expectation. Tish and Fonny, its main characters, are as believable together as Moonlight's Chiron and Kevin. And, just as in Moonlight, we feel a desperate urge to remove the obstacles which separate them. As though the sheer will of an audience can scare away the adversity.
Beale Street highlights how much of this adversity remains today. The battle for civil rights having been 'won' is exposed for the complacent platitude it is. Rates of black incarceration are still shamefully high. Scapegoating of black folks and police brutality and murders are still rampant. But people still love each other in the same way too. In Beale Street, as in real life, love may not conquer all. But it is itself unconquerable, and will always be with us. Push it into a corner — it fights.
Words by Andrew O’Keefe