Dir. Barry Jenkins. Starring Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Thorough spoilers for a movie still in its wide release.
There’s a noteworthy costume choice made in the first few moments of If Beale Street Could Talk. With the camera towering over Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James), we can see that their outfits go together. He’s wearing a yellow shirt with a blue jacket while she wears a yellow ensemble with blue, the kind of planned inverse that says play more than movie to me. Nor is it the last moment that reminded me of a play; so much of the movie’s space appears more like the set of a Broadway production than the set of a movie, as when a camera at street level looks at them walk in the rain towards a crossing street that we cannot go more than ten feet beyond what we see. Add in finally the hazy yellows that Jenkins and DP James Laxton have subsituted for the blue-orange contrasts of Moonlight (thank heavens), and that theatrical atmosphere firmly takes hold. I like to think it’s the movie’s way of inviting us in by speaking the language of a more intimate medium, of never prizing verisimilitude over the hope of an emotional payoff. (This movie also loves close-ups; I don’t want to make it sound like you see the action from the balcony.) But if this is like a play, then the vitality of live theater is necessarily lost, and the place where Beale Street cracks is in the acting which cannot have the same effect from a screen as it does in person. It’s in small moments, where you can see the actors thinking “Gesture, gesture, head tilt, gesture, speech,” something both Colman Domingo and Brian Tyree Henry do. Or it’s in moments where the language veers more toward monologue or declamation rather than talking, which is something that Layne and King both have to deal with. The vast majority of the performances in this incredibly subjective movie are really good. There are gaps, though, and they are consistent enough that it keeps Beale Street from becoming a genuinely great movie.
Maybe the problem is that Henry is in this movie? When he arrives on screen, he brings an ineffable energy with him that no one else can capture. It’s not that Stephan James, who I think was marvelous in this movie and who shares the screen most with Henry, is uninteresting. It’s that Henry simply seems to be working on a different level than his colleagues. That speech Daniel gives in Fonny’s apartment while Tish makes dinner for them is one of the rare speeches that doesn’t feel scripted and practiced. With his face showing us the pain he obviously feels, Daniel tells Fonny that the worst thing about jail is the way it makes you scared. Jenkins puts him in profile, a choice that helps because so many of the close-ups are head-on and this one is clearly meant to be different. And in a movie where almost everyone mumbles their way through their lines—James’ propensity to murmur is a bolt of realism that this movie needs, and one that makes his impossible good looks come down to earth a little—Henry’s take on it makes you lean in to hear. He is a big man, and his voice becomes so small, so hushed that it seems like he’s shrunk. I keep thinking about a line in After the Rehearsal where Erland Josephson tells Lena Olin that a thin actress can make herself heavy by acting the weight in her hips; Henry can make himself about four feet tall and seventy-five pounds with his voice and his eyes. The Daniel scenes would have been where the lever moved in Beale Street without Henry, but with him they become an unforgettable fulcrum.
James and Layne do work well together, which is the most important thing. There’s an obvious chemistry between the two of them, even though many of the scenes they share put a glass between them, and even when they are together they aren’t always together. There’s a table between them at a restaurant, a few feet between the kitchenette and the table in his apartment, a street between them as they exult in finding an apartment together that’s far enough away from the real world they’ve grown up in. He’s twenty-two, she’s nineteen; when would they have time to imagine being apart? When they are close together, it’s frequently because something forces them that way. They have sex, or they hold each other close after whooping with joy, or Tish tries to hold Fonny back from beating a white man an inch from his life. She clings to him while a police officer (Ed Skrein) comes up to them, calls him “boy,” and is kept from arresting Fonny by the woman who owns the grocery. Humiliated but not chastened, the cop stares them down with beady eyes, and a close-up has never looked so close. This event takes place late in the movie even though it’s probably around the movie’s midpoint if it were arranged chronologically. (God bless Barry Jenkins for eschewing straight narratives.) In other words, we know who Officer Bell is and what he looks like and that he was responsible for arresting Fonny for the rape of a woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) on the other side of town, and that he is the one who gets the last laugh. With the power of his badge and the security of his position, he can do what he wants. It is as much sad as infuriating, and the characters in the story reflect that hopelessness whether they think about it that way or not. Their legal strategy is not to attack Bell, but to try to get Victoria to change her testimony.
The greatest advantage that Beale Street has, and it’s one that Jenkins uses exceptionally, is its score. Nicholas Britell has written some of the finest music put in a movie in this century, and it absolutely elevates the film. It belongs with Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, Trent Reznor’s The Social Network, Micachu’s Jackie, Dario Marianelli’s Atonement, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. (It is, lol, far better original music than Damien Chazelle has ever squeezed into one of his movies.) Beale Street is at its heart a romance: what’s a romance without “Eros”?
Something about the pulsing, almost ambient work of the basses and the slight intakes of breath that punctuate the music makes “Eros” feel like Philip Glass. But the cello that hops in about fifteen seconds in is familiar, and we are drawn to its repetitive descant. Then, about a minute in, the cello begins to light. It hops. It sounds like something you could swing dance to. This is erotic love in a strings section, the low thumping of a bass drum there for the rhythm of the act, and the cello there to ask pleasure first yet, in the context of the movie, forgetting to excuse the pain. It is impossible not to hear that melody when you look at Fonny and Tish seeing each other through the glass at the prison, or when they sit at the same table with their son years later, when Fonny is serving out the plea deal he took.
The standout piece of music of If Beale Street Could Talk is “Agape,” which uses piano and strings and breath as setup and a muted trumpet for its payoff. Longing is one of those difficult and magical emotions that one tries to get to in music, and Britell understands well what he’s doing to get there. He uses just enough of it to make us want to hear more and there’s such satisfaction in hearing it crest over the steadiness of the undertones which it shares so few qualities with. This is the music of rainy nights and loaned umbrellas, of tungsten bulbs and traffic lights, of possibility and discord. Something about the jazzy brass doesn’t quite go with the strings, which is entirely the point. Joy is the point we want to touch, and the warning of those strings never does go away. The piece ends with them long after the trumpet has been put down.