Nicholas Brittell’s score to If Beale Street Could Talk captured our hearts and imaginations
Now that we have some breathing room post-awards season, let’s talk about the Oscar-nominated score for If Beale Street Could Talk, one of the best movies released in 2018, based on James Baldwin’s simultaneous condemnation of white supremacy and celebration of Black love—romantic, platonic, and familial. It picked up a richly deserved Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Regina King. The film also should have picked up nominations for Best Cinematography (James Laxton), Best Picture, Best Actress (Kiki Layne), Best Actor (Stephan James), Best Supporting Actor (Brian Tyree Henry) and Best Editing (Joi McMillon) but that is another argument for another day.
The cello-driven score by Nicholas Brittell, both haunting and hopeful, has earned a spot in the collective conscious imagination. Brittell also composed the music for the award-winning film Moonlight, which featured chopped and screwed classical music.
The director, Barry Jenkins, has been regularly sharing on his Twitter feed examples of how the Beale Street score has affected his audience.
One person posted a video of himself riding a dirt bike in golden sunlight, with the song "Mama Gets To Puerto Rico" as the soundtrack.
Another person posted the short film "Negro Kiss", long lost film footage that directly counters the racist origins of modern film with "Agape" in the background.
Yet another person posted a video of himself pop locking to "Keepers of the Keys and Seals", a song that's a cross between jazz and traditional chamber music.
Despite sheet music not being released yet, a group in New York performed the score of Beale Street to a crowded room at Soho House.
I can't remember the last time a piece of art—in this case, Barry Jenkins' interpretation of James Baldwin's simultaneous indictment of white supremacy and celebration of Black love in all forms— inspired so many other people to create their own artistic responses. Not memes, not gentle but nonetheless mocking parodies, but rather video essays, live performances, and Instagrammed moments of quotidian life with the notes of "Agape" and "Eden (Harlem)" playing the background.
While Beale Street may have had a rather muted appearance during awards season, ultimately the awards are not what really matters. What matters is its impact on us as an audience. The fact that I regularly play the soundtrack while I commute across Chicago for work.
The fact that so many of us have created our own art using this score as a starting point. The fact that three months after seeing this movie in theaters, I still think about that sequence of Tish working at Bergdorff Goodman and how she was treated by white women, white men, and Black men.
That I still think of that scene of Tish’s mother in Puerto Rico, frantically adjusting and re-adjusting her wig in the mirror, her facade of strength she’s needed to keep up for her daughter and forthcoming grandson’s sake finally giving way to a deep fatigue and anxiety.
The way photos from Gordon Parks were interwoven into the story to remind us that though this is based on a novel, this is also very much based on real life. And those beautiful, soulful cellos pulling us through the story all the while.