There is so much to love about If Beale Street Could Talk that it’s impossible to pinpoint one particular thing that made me fall for it. Much like how love itself is a culmination of individual emotions and experiences that to distill it to its essence is to risk losing some of its magic.
And If Beale Street Could Talk is as magical as any fable in which a young couple falls in love against all odds, but it is grounded in the reality of pain and loss which comes from a uniquely African-American experience. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, Beale Street is a metaphor for any street in America where black communities thrive against the backdrop of white injustice. It’s where children go to school, parents go to work, families go to church, and people fall in love – but rarely without consequence.
Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight, is a sweeping, aching, sumptuous portrait of a tight-knit family committed to supporting their pregnant daughter, Tish and her beloved partner, Fonny, who has been wrongly incarcerated for sexual assault in 1974 New York City. When we meet Tish and Fonny, they are already deeply in love, and we know this because Jenkins makes us see them as though they are the only man and woman in the world, almost floating through the frame, resplendent in blues and yellows, they literally glow. And we fall in love with them immediately.
This kind of defiant, uncompromising love deserves an epic accompaniment, and the score you created is lilting and melancholy but hopeful. In particular, your composition Eros acts as Tish and Fonny’s theme for their first sexual encounter which is both tender and urgent. Since Jenkins tells this story in flashback, with Tish acting as our narrator, we already know this story will not deliver the happy ending this couple deserves. Her reflections on her history with Fonny, and the lengths their families will and won’t go to, are delivered with the kind of steely resolve of someone who has been raised to understand that her life and the lives of those around her are dependent on circumstances imposed by decades of cultural subjugation beyond her control.
To capture the balance between joy and despair, Jenkins relies on actors who deliver some of the most enchanting and unaffected performances in recent memory. Kiki Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny share a chemistry that is simultaneously delicate and electric. Bryan Tyree Henry is gutting in a brief but pivotal scene in which he shares his experience of being recently incarcerated. But it is Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother Sharon, who owns the screen with her visceral portrayal of a mother’s internal crisis. Sharon is confident but tentative in her attempts to be a rock for her family, guide her frightened daughter, and secure Fonny’s freedom. Her misery is private, but her heartbreak is universal.
The score of If Beale Street Could Talk manages a mid-century mélange of jazz and classic genres, with pulsing strings and emphatic horns, which imply ecstasy, elation, sorrow, and hope. Always hope. It is elegant, mournful, and palpably stirring. If Beale Street Could Talk is set in the mid-70s, but it is ageless in its depiction of a love that is beaten and battered but can never be destroyed, despite systemic attempts to deny it. It showed me a tragedy I only understood intellectually, and even then, it was an acknowledgement shrouded in my own white privilege. To grasp even tangentially an inkling of the anguish and faith of the countless Tishes and Fonnies who have lived this story was a gift, but even more importantly, it was revelatory, the way great love – and great art – should be.