There is no other movie like Barry Jenkins’ genius If Beale Street Could Talk. This faithful film adaptation of James Baldwin’s iconic novel of the same name portrays the beauty of Blackness in all of its glory. In Barry’s Beale Street, Blackness means more than just oppression; Blackness is love, a glow that envelopes a family and two lovers in particular, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Despite racism, sexism, violence against women, mass incarceration and patriarchy, this family–led by Regina King as the mom, Sharon, Colman Domingo as the father Joseph and Teyonah Parris as the sister Ernestine–leans into each other and finds rest, relief and security.
When Tish finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with Fonny’s baby after Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and locked away, it is her big sister Ernestine who tells her, “Unbow your head, sister.” When someone must go seek out the woman who has wrongly identified Fonny as her rapist, it’s Sharon who puts on her good wig to go and find the young woman to help free Fonny for her daughter Tish. While Sharon is away, it’s Joseph who holds and comforts his daughter Tish while she’s in pain from pregnancy and stress. And while the racist criminal justice system is against them, it is Tish and Fonny who reach into each other’s souls and grant each other respite with just the deepness of their gaze, the sweetness of their greetings, “Hi, husband;” “Hi, wife.”
Above it all is the master of this choreopoem, Barry Jenkins, wielding his camera in defense of Blackness, in the name of Blackness, for the love of Blackness. Jenkins’ camera holds on Tish’s face as she looks at her love, it highlights her thick Black afro hair, her luminous Black skin, her Black mouth spreading in a full-teeth smile, lapping up screen time until Jenkins is sure we see the beauty of her Black joy in its purest form. Likewise, Jenkins zeroes in on Fonny’s Black eyes, his Black nose, his Black mouth and the beauty of his unapologetically Black face radiates off the screen. He is undeniably beautiful; he is undeniably Black; he is undeniably human.
“It’s almost daring you to look away, to not see these people’s humanity” Domingo tells Shadow and Act of why Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton chose to hold so long on the faces of its main lovers. “By going up so close on Stephan’s nose and his lips and his eyes, you see a full human being, and so hopefully it smashes tropes about what people may think that they know of young Black men.”