IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018, Barry Jenkins)
Begins with a pregnancy announcement, then proceeds to let the entire movie swell like a kicking womb, life growing inside it until it can barely stand up. James Laxton’s vibrant colors and warm light make the entire thing glow with nearly unmatched romanticism (you could rip off worse people than Wong Kar-wai), and Nicholas Britell’s luscious score peppers falling autumn leaves of violin strings all over its characters. It’s hard to imagine a more human, adoring, soft, organic movie can be made about decades of oppressive, institutionalized racism tearing apart families, ruining lives, and damaging true love.
And sure enough, that social injustice is on Jenkins’s mind (though evidently not as much as Baldwin’s, who focused more heavily on it in his source novel) — his goal is to cultivate sympathy for a couple so likable, a relationship so pure, and a baby so desired, that the threat of losing it all becomes that much more painful. It’s the way Harlem in the ’70s breathes, the way Kiki Layne and Stephan James (two powerhouse performances that come out of nowhere from two unknowns) stare at each other, and the way Fonny’s false imprisonment doesn’t only separate the white authority from the oppressed blacks, but the way it fractures tenuous bonds between Fonny’s family and Tish’s, and between women like Sharon and Victoria. The collateral damage when people get arrested for being black is far-reaching and devastatingly permanent.
At times, Jenkins’s romantic touch pulls you out of the movie and turns the spotlight on the hardworking crew members: there’s the sculpting sequences filled with beautiful smoke; the way that all the costumes — even Fonny’s prison shirt — look like this is the first time they’ve ever been worn, so perfectly clean and new; and an ending that doesn’t grant catharsis — it merely exhales and fades out. But I’ll take a tone that leans in this direction over another “gritty” PSA-style lecture. It’s a joy to watch, even when it’s tough to confront.