Film & TV

If Beale Street Could Talk
By Elijah Davidson on January 17, 2019

Imagine a sphere, gigantic, like a mountain – bigger, a continent, incomprehensibly vast and invisible and beyond our physical senses. This sphere is rolling around the earth. No natural or man-made feature hinders its movement. It passes through walls, skims across the surface of the sea, traverses the bottoms of the deepest, narrowest canyons and travels up stairways and down hallways in tenements and favelas and penthouse apartments. Though it is impossibly large, it is still a true sphere, so it touches the surface of the earth only in a single point as it rolls along.

This sphere is Ecstasy, Infatuation, Eros, Romance, Rapture. It is the thrill of being so taken by the inherent beauty of another—for me, my spouse; my pet; carefree laughter at a meal shared with friends; a sunrise or sunset in a new city; a hummingbird perched on a feeder on a rainy day; a fruity Ethiopian coffee; the smell of citrus; the African cadences and Indian tablas in Paul Simon’s “Dazzling Blue;” the liberated speed born of the efficient cooperation of man and machine when I ride my bike; etc.—that you are overcome. The sphere rolls around the earth, and when it rolls over us, we launch into it, bounce around like free electrons for an instant out of time that smacks of eternity before we crash back to earth glowing and ringing like hot metal beneath the blacksmith’s hammer.

Commonly, we call being in the sphere being “in love.” This is imprecise. The sphere is, indeed, part of the same reality as Love. It is made of love, but it is not all of Love. It is only an aspect of it. We too are made of Love, just of a more steady variety. It is the combination of the sphere’s ionized atmosphere and our inherent nature that sparks the romantic revelry.

The nature of the sphere is constant, singular. It is of one reality, the reality of Love. We are more complicated. We are made of Love, but we are also of this plain. We can be corrupted. Our natures can be inundated by Fear – by our own choice to fear, by sudden circumstance that instills fear, or merely by osmosis if we lackadaise in fearful environs. Some are opened to fear by shame. Others, by greed. Still others, most tragically, find themselves beset with fear by other fearful beings.

But, there cannot be Fear in Love. They do not mix. As we absorb Fear, Love is driven from our bodies, pushed out bit by bit from our fingers and our toes and the tops of our heads. And Fear cannot pass into the sphere. Flooded by Fear but not entirely overcome, we might feel the sphere’s static as it passes over us, but we will not ignite. Consumed completely by Fear, we live, or rather, exist, as small, recalcitrant things. We think we are strong, but rather we are inert.

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If Beale Street Could Talk is about—not “on the subject of” but “movement within a particular area; location in a particular place”—being taken into that sphere. The primary location it is about that is in the life of the very young couple at its center, Tish and ‘Fonny’ (Kiki Layne and Steven James, as precious as Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, if not more so), in their romance with each other, in Tish’s bond with her family, in Fonny’s sculpting, and in the friendships they make with good-natured people in their neighborhood. There is a lot of Love in If Beale Street Could Talk, so much beautiful Love it makes your belly ache.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins inundates his film with romance. He swirls us around the lovers, the art, the home. He drenches the screen in color. Music more opulent than the window of a French pâtisserie fills their world and the film’s soundtrack. He elongates time. Jenkins’ film’s emotional landscape is as vibrant as that of Wong Kar-wai and Jacques Demy, but it is also absent any of their genre conceits. There is nothing in If Beale Street Could Talk that might distance us from the sentiment. It’s as genuine as a paper cut.

It has to be, because as fantastic as it is to be raptured into that sphere with Tish and Fonny, their romance is under siege. As black people in America, the American justice and economic systems are against them. Their situation is precarious. They are at the mercy of racists. The film is a nearly perfect adaptation of its source material, James Baldwin’s elegiac novella, so the instances of racism in the film are typical of his writing - keenly observed, as when Tish talks about how different people interact with her at the makeup counter where she works, and also paradigmatic, as in the story’s primary plot conflict which concerns Fonny being chewed up by an (in)justice system that considers him guilty because he is black. The minor and the major injustices in If Beale Street Could Talk have equal weight—crushing; the gravity of Jupiter—because both work equally to grind these good people down.

The romances in If Beale Street Could Talk are so hydrogen-bomb vibrant because they flash in contrast to the tragic ways the American system works to snuff them out. To mature as a black person in America in If Beale Street Could Talk is to wage a moment-by-moment war against forces of evil that aim to swallow up black people in Fear. Tish and Fonny and all the people who love them vie valiantly against this evil. They rekindle their Love over glasses of treasured French cognac and meals lovingly prepared and the most amazing music.

I believe the sphere is especially receptive to people like Tish and Fonny, that it rushes to them when they call it, that “those who mourn will be comforted,” that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” that “the pure in heart will see God.” So when the film ends, and in a way, injustice has won, still what lingers are the swirling camera movements, the redolent colors, the canyons of song, the time-out-of-time. The top of my head and my fingertips yet glow from rebounding against the sides of the sphere while I watched If Beale Street Could Talk.

About the Author: Elijah Davidson

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