In Widows, Brian Tyree Henry plays a man attempting to cover up a sinister past by wresting power from the white institutions who put him in such a compromised position in the first place, but in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, for 12 minutes or so, he completely occupies the screen helplessly unable to cover up anything, something so much more fundamentally evil haunting him, compromising him beyond anything we can imagine.
Or maybe we can: In the one scene in which we see the night that would become a young black man’s futile alibi for a crime he didn’t commit, Daniel (Henry) has dinner with his old friend, woodworker Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), and the man’s partner Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), nervously asking for beer and cigarettes as he gradually reveals what he’s been up to recently. The answer is simple enough: He’s been in jail, out for only a few months, and things are “bad,” though Daniel doesn’t elaborate. We understand enough, or so we think—he’s a black man in 1970s New York, and even within the context of the film itself, everything that happens opposes the mere existence of our many characters, all black people but for a conspicuous few.
But then, clutching his cigarette for dear life, his eyes welling, Daniel begins to etch out a baser idea of what life in jail was like for him. What it meant for “they” to be able to so manipulate him, control him, destroy him—there, inside, he whispers or screams (it’s hard to tell, volume devastated by the urgency and pain in Daniel’s retelling) they’re capable of getting someone like him to do anything. Daniel doesn’t elaborate; cinematographer James Laxton’s camera is uncomfortably close to Henry, hushed and searching his face for…something, anything, relief maybe?—but so, so reluctant to look Daniel straight in his eyes, which wouldn’t be notable were Jenkins’ film not so occupied with staring straight into his characters’ pupils. Because to look Daniel, and Henry, in the eyes in that moment would be an act of Sisyphean proportions. Because we know, in 12 minutes, that nothing has changed in almost 50 years.
From there—a nadir, or one of Jenkins’ greatest moments—the film vortexes outward, time for our characters elliptical, and the love story between Tish and Fonny the rhythm we’ll return to over and over. As our narrator, Tish speaks in both curt statements and koans, Jenkins’ screenplay translating James Baldwin’s novel as an oneiric bit of voyeurism: When the two finally consummate their relationship after a lifetime (barely two decades) of friendship between them and their families, the mood is divine and revelatory. Do people actually have sex like that? God no, but maybe we wish we did? And sometimes we convince ourselves we have, with the right person, just two bodies alone, against the world, in a space—maybe the only space—of their own.
The couple’s story is simple and not: A cop (Ed Skrein) with a petty score to settle against Fonny connives a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) who was raped to pick Fonny out of a lineup, even though his alibi and all evidence suggests otherwise. In the film’s first scene, we watch Tish visit Fonny in jail to tell him that she’s pregnant. He’s ecstatic; we immediately recognize that unique alchemy of terror and joy that accompanies any new parent, but we also know that for a young black couple, the world is bent against their love thriving. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says.
Does she hope? Her mother Sharon (Regina King) and her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) celebrate this new life when she tells them, despite the void of the future before them, and her sister (Teyonah Pariss) welcomes the chance to break out the good wine, a distraction from the mostly pessimistic task of working with a young white boy lawyer to get Fonny out of jail. The Rivers call up the Hunts so that Tish can break the news. Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, in his second major December release after playing Black Manta’s dad in Aquaman, making him this month’s clear MVP) beams with the chance to become even closer to his good friend Joseph, but Fonny’s evangelical mother (Aunjanue Ellis) reacts as one would expect an evangelical to react, flanked by Fonny’s equally self-righteous sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne). When the scene erupts in violence, we’re thrust backwards in time, and Tish fills us in on how her love story began, memories—if one can call them that—limned in serotinal browns and yellows, Laxton more than earning his keep after the Miami heat of Moonlight. Without exaggeration: Every frame of this film brims with rending beauty, not denying the grimy shit-scape of 1970s New York, but re-imagining it within the context of our protagonists’ love.
Do they hope? James and Layne’s performances, so wondrously in sync, suggest they must, one flesh with no other choice. Regina King perhaps best understands the wickedness of that hope, playing Sharon as a woman who can’t quite get what she wants, but who seems to intuit that such progress may be further than most in her situation. Beleaguered but undaunted, she’s the film’s matriarch, a force of such warmth that, even in our fear watching as Tish’s belly grows and her hope wanes, Sharon’s presence reassures us—not that everything will be alright, but that everything will be.
The end of If Beale Street Could Talk is practically a given—unless your ignorance guides you throughout this idiotic world—but there is still love in those final moments, as much love as there was in the film’s symmetrical opening. There’s hope in that, however pathetically little. The heartbreaking bravery of Barry Jenkins’ third brilliant film is that he rests upon a clean, aching ambiguity: Such hope is both enough, and will never be enough, because nearly 50 years later nothing has changed.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach, Teyonah Pariss, Aunjanue Ellis
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.