The necessary beauty of 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

I saw If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ third feature film, at one of my favorite theaters in Chicago, where a mural of famous movie stars prominently features Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. It was a cold December evening, a few days before Christmas. I remember walking out of the theater with tears in my eyes, not exactly happy, not exactly sad, but deeply moved. It’s now February and I still can’t get the movie out of my head. And I don’t very much want to either.

If Beale Street Could Talk is based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, which is a story about love, and racism, and the criminal justice system, and how life both stops but also must go on in the face of a system that was built to destroy lives. Black lives, in particular.  Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young, Black couple in love, whose love story is disrupted when Fonny goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. The movie, told from Tish’s point of view, traces their love story as Tish and her family fight to get him out of jail.

One of my favorite photographers, Roy DeCarava—whose influence can be seen in the cinematography of Beale Street—said in 2001 interview something I go back to often:

No, it's not about pretty pictures, because it's not about pretty. It's about truth. And truth is a many splendored thing -- a multi-faceted thing. It doesn't have to be pretty to be true, but if it's true it's beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.

I think Beale Street is true. And there is beauty in truth, even when painful things are happening. And what made me feel connected to this story is that it's not all sadness and pain. There are moments where you'll laugh, thanks to Teyonah Parris’ lived in performance as Tish’s sister, moments when you're angry on Fonny’s behalf, moments when you’ll cry thanks to the subtle performances of Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s doting parents, the beautiful cinematography by Jenkins’ longtime collaborator James Laxton and the lush score by Nicholas Brittell.

But that's life, isn't it? Life itself isn't nonstop misery and it also isn't nonstop laughs and thrills.

And I think the best art comes from recognizing that grey area of life. I think that’s particularly well illustrated in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (how he was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award by the Academy I’ll never know) where one minute he's laughing and joking and talking shit and the next minute, he drops that mask to confess a deep reservoir of pain and fear to Fonny before he goes back to laughing and joking again. The sound design in this scene is haunting, where “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis slowly becomes more distorted and eerie as he recounts what happened to him in jail.

How many of us know cousins, uncles, brothers, fathers who do that same thing? How many of us do that same thing, where we laugh and fill up space with jokes and anecdotes to hide how we really feel? Or rather, how often do we take the pain we may be feeling and transmute it into humor or some other form of art?

You can be having your highest high and lowest low simultaneously, which was a theme that kept coming up for me in this film. And I feel like that is a strong metaphor for what it is like to be Black in American society. It’s not all laughs and it’s not all pain. It’s often both and I think it’s important to explore those grey areas in life.

This was apparent in Barry Jenkins’s first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a movie that holds a special place in my heart, which I first saw in 2008 when I was living in Baltimore as a grad student. I bought the DVD and watched it over and over, two Black people walking through San Francisco, hesitantly falling in love while not shying away from the political implications of what it means to be Black in a rapidly gentrifying city, whose Black population had at that point been winnowed down to seven percent. Jenkins has always handled images of Black people with such sensitivity and care, while never shying away from tougher, political questions of what it means to be Black in his own unique and subtle way.