Born out of the same unobtrusive intimacy as Barry Jenkins’s previous offering, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is a visually lush and poetic laudation of the mysterious and transcendental thing that is love. It’s a celebration of love’s redemptive propensity and its healing properties. Yet more than that, If Beale Street Could Talk is a study of brokenness and injustice; the unfairness and anguish that are born out of prejudice and how bias affects not even our society, but something much more fragile — us. How injustice creeps into our lives like sin crept into this world, leaving an inescapable stain and taking with it the inherent glory once present at our inception. Yet is all lost? Are we so irreparably broken that nothing can restore us to our former selves? Will nothing wipe away our tears? If Beale Street Could Talk answers this question in several ways, but what it sets before its eyes in order to do so is something even sin can’t strip from us, something God himself avows is our saving grace, the very reason for our existence — love.
“We’re going to have a baby,” 19 year old Tish (Kiki Layne) whispers to her fiancé Fonny (Stephan James). Yet it’s not in a warm embrace or in the comfort of their home that these beautiful words are uttered, it’s through glass — Tish on the one side and Fonny on the other. Fonny has been falsely accused (as young African American males often were and still are) of a detestable crime he couldn’t have possibly committed, and now he’s behind bars, awaiting trial. Their families were already seeking Fonny’s liberation after this incident, but now one act of intimacy both promises and threatens new life, and it’s up to both of the families to put aside their differences and seek Fonny’s release before his son has the chance to grow up in a world without him.
As I mentioned earlier, If Beale Street Could Talk is a study of brokenness and fragility — but not always that of a larger, systematic variety. Throughout the movie, one thing we come to both recognize and mourn is the division of Tish and Fonny’s families. Fonny’s parents carry an attitude of sadness, yes, detached grief at their son’s plight, but ultimately, they do nothing to stop or alter his condition, instead choosing to let time do its work. It’s with tragic irony that we come to see Tish’s family exerting themselves to free Fonny — Tish’s family choosing a future where Fonny can raise his son in person and not through glass. It’s sad, yes, but it’s also strangely beautiful — a gorgeous example of storge love — the immovable dedication of family.
The concept of love and its variety is explored further as the movie progresses. The ethereal soundtrack (easily the best of the year), composed by Nicholas Britell, who previously worked with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight, itself contains four songs each entitled one of the different “four loves” — storge, eros, philia, and agape. As mentioned earlier, Tish’s family embodies the concept of storge — empathy love, the loving intimacy of family. About halfway through the movie, we are introduced to another character — Fonny’s childhood friend Daniel. We come to find out that Daniel was previously incarcerated, and is still recovering from the exploitation he suffered while in this state. (James Baldwin’s 1974 book, which the film is based on and which I recommend everyone read, explores even further the bond between Daniel and Fonny.) Daniel finds a safe place in Tish and Fonny’s home, a haven that serves as a sort of makeshift catharsis, and as he sits at the table with Fonny, night after night, discussing his life behind bars, we see philia slowly bloom—a compassionate companionship unhindered by the pain that lurks just outside the doors of Fonny and Tish’s home.
Yet two other loves outshine those of the platonic and companion-like variety and are much more far reaching — eros and agape. If Beale Street Could Talk, on the surface, appears to solely examine eros love — the process and feeling of being in love. The film certainly contains its fair share of intimate scenes, yet its inclusive focus is that of agape — all encompassing love existing completely independently of attractiveness or superficiality. This is love that transcends separation, glass, and anguish, but prejudice based solely on the things agape transcends threatens to rip it apart.
And it hurts.
If Beale Street could talk, I think it would lament at the state of its cobblestone pathways — streets where symphonies of sound laud and underscore the feeling of being in love, but where an undercurrent of injustice slowly rips this harmony apart. If Beale Street Could Talk shows with pronounced clarity the pain of having to watch your significant other suffer through glass, watch your family toil through glass, watch your son grow up through glass. It’s not fair. Yet can anything be done to cease the cycle of injustice that snaps at goodness and mercy’s embrace? It’s a question that many times throughout history has been examined, and If Beale Street Could Talk answers it with the same simplicity with which intimacy creeps into our lives and manifests itself in our hearts: