According to James Baldwin, “every black person in American was born on Beale Street,” a Memphis thoroughfare known as the home of the Blues. According to Barry Jenkins, Baldwin’s imagined Beale Street is a conceptualization of black love.
In his newest work, If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy) masterfully conveys the simple, beautiful intimacy of radical, devotional love—and he makes this feat look easy. From the wardrobe to the music, the work of Jenkins’ cast and crew has created a wholly heartbreaking yet endlessly hopeful film.
If Beale Street Could Talk, based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel named after W.C. Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues,” tells the story of nineteen-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (breakout star Kiki Layne) and twenty-two-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). They do their best to remain optimistic when Tish finds herself pregnant with Fonny’s child as Fonny sits in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Tish and Fonny’s lives are split into Before and After Fonny’s imprisonment. Before, the young couple is relatively carefree: wandering through a New York park and dining at Fonny’s favorite Mexican restaurant. After, Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) have dedicated themselves to Fonny’s case. Where Tish’s father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) are ecstatic about the baby, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) and Fonny’s sisters Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) turn up their noses at the scandal of a baby born out of wedlock. While Tish navigates this tension on the outside, Fonny, stuck inside a jail cell, is only allowed to see Tish through glass. Beale Street paints a picture of multiple families fractured. Just when Tish and Fonny were ready to start one of their own, Fonny was ripped from the love of his life.
Love is at the center of Beale Street. I love you, Tish and Fonny say to each other through prison phones every time Tish visits. Love keeps Tish and Fonny together. Love, in the face of adversity and inequality and violence, is what keeps Fonny alive. He holds onto love when he lays alone in a dark cell. Love holds community together and provides strength in the face of disenfranchisement. Not only is Tish and Fonny’s love radical, but Jenkins’ choice to make this film is radical too.
The visuals of Beale Street are carefully crafted to draw out the emotions of Tish and Fonny’s journey. Jenkins draws the line between Before and After with color. Before is marked by a wardrobe of red, green, and shades of gold, ranging from light yellow to bright sunshine—the colors of Pan-Africanism—worn by both Tish and Fonny. Even the lighting of Fonny’s basement studio where the couple revels in time spent alone together is tinged golden yellow.
After, there’s a noticeable shift. Tish’s clothing still carries the Pan-African colors signaling togetherness, but Fonny is limited to prison blue and grey. His new wardrobe is bleak against the yellow background of the prison walls. The bright colors still adorning Tish reflect the hope she is determined to hold onto.
Beale Street is visually striking at other moments too, as when Tish and Fonny have finally found a landlord who will rent to them and the camera pans the empty space as Fonny describes the humble home he envisions; and when, after a close encounter with a police officer, a frustrated Fonny throws just-bought tomatoes against a wall, splattering them like blood.
Nicholas Britell’s score adds to the story just as much as the visual elements. Elegant piano, soaring horns, and graceful strings buoy Tish and Fonny’s relationship as they each explore romantic love for their childhood best friend. The score turns low and rumbling when the mood becomes darker: as the police officer confronts Fonny outside of the grocery store, as Tish and Fonny’s fathers’ both steal from their jobs to provide for their grandchild, and as Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), Fonny’s friend recently out on parole, tells the young couple about the horrors he faced while incarcerated.
Jenkins faces the hard truths in Baldwin’s novel head on. In a voiceover narration, Kiki Layne reads Baldwin’s elegant prose steadily and with conviction, explaining how systemic racism put Fonny behind bars and ruins the lives of black children throughout New York City. Jenkins shows a montage of black and white photos, presumably from the 1970s, of black men being arrested or beaten by police and black kids crowded in housing project windows. Jenkins draws an intentional parallel as he shows a still black-and-white shot of Fonny in the back of a police car. This fictional world is not far from our real one, whether we’re talking about the United States of 1974 or 2018.
The message of Jenkins’ work is clear: we should dare to love. Refuse to give up on love even when a racist police officer with a personal vendetta tries to destroy your life. Refuse to submit even when you’re constantly told that you’re worthless—that you’re less than fully human. This is radical. To be an artist like Fonny when the education system would rather relegate you to vocational work is radical.
I’m a hopeless romantic. To me, loving someone as much as Tish loves Fonny, loving them so much that your two lives melt into one and even the bars of prison cannot tear you apart is something profound. While the world around them says they’re worthless, Tish and Fonny declare that they are worthy of love. Their dedication to each other is a form of resistance. Barry Jenkins declares on behalf of his black community: we are here, we are worthy of love, and we will continue to love.