“I am equally moved by that moment in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train when the young Japanese couple arrive in the train station in Memphis only to encounter what appears to be a homeless black man, a drifter, but who turns to them and speaks in Japanese. The interaction takes only a moment, but it deconstructs and expresses so much. It reminds us that appearances are deceiving. It made me think about black men as travellers, about black men who fight in armies around the world. This filmic moment challenges our perceptions of blackness by engaging in a process of defamiliarization.”
What are the potential pitfalls of me, as a white person, appreciating and relating to this passage from bell hooks’ Reel to Real? If most critics found Barry Jenkins’ depiction of black masculinity in Moonlight surprising, what kinds of surprise are valid, and which are rooted in ignorance? When does the ‘process of defamiliarization’ happen not because of anything unusual on screen, but due to the viewer’s mistaken assumptions being challenged? Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to 2016’s surprising Best Picture winner is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s unsurprising in its assured direction and unwavering heart. It doesn’t feel like a film that is carving out its own space forcefully, breaking down old walls; it feels like it has quietly slipped into some unseen, unoccupied room, turning the lights on to reveal that it is already full of the old and the new.
The day Tish realises that her childhood friend Fonny is in love with her, and she with him, is the day that Fonny, an abstract sculptor who works as a cook, shows Tish around his neighbourhood. Is Tish surprised when Fonny leads her to his favourite local restaurant and starts speaking perfect Spanish with the maitre’d, or is she just surprised to find this person that she knows so well behaving in a different way for different people, surprised to find him sharing these other parts of his life with her? Love turns Fonny into a beautiful stranger, and they have sex in his apartment to the sublime central theme of Nicholas Britell’s score.
The film slips back and forth in time, from these early days of an enduring romance to Tish’s long pregnancy, working at a department store perfume counter while Fonny awaits trial for a rape that, due to the time and location of his arrest, he would’ve had to have been a wizard to commit. Tish tells her mother (Regina King) about the baby first, and then her father and sister. Her father is surprised, supportive, a little taken aback at her 19-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, and he excitedly invites Fonny’s family round to share the news (and a bottle of whisky) that evening. Incidentally, if the debate can now begin over what exactly Barry Jenkins’ signature filmmaking moves are, let me cast a vote for his close-ups of people being quietly, almost wordlessly surprised, trying to maintain eye contact while waves of living epiphany break over their face.
What follows is the most burlesquely comic scene in the film, Fonny’s mother’s judgemental bible-thumping striking a discordant note that causes some marvellously barbed insults to fly. There’s real bitterness and harshness, but it goes down smoothly with the immediate, on-demand love, protection and sensitivity that Tish’s family keep demonstrating to each other. When there’s love in a Barry Jenkins film, of whatever kind, it never really gets ‘tested’ or ‘proven’, nothing so empirical. It just reveals itself from the beginning, deeper and deeper, going furtively or fiercely to extraordinary lengths without ever becoming stretched. Time and space distort, wanting to better accommodate it.
That’s why we see Tish’s mother, Sharon, trying on a wig in a hotel room in Puerto Rico, because the woman who was prompted by police into fingering Fonny in a line-up has fled back to her hometown. The money for the trip has come from the combined, sometimes illegal efforts of the entire family. Nobody is fighting for their civil rights on a grand scale; the lawyer who takes the case is going to pursue justice only with the mundane means at his disposal. Everybody is working hard just to get this single baby into the world in as favourable a situation as possible. Like Fonny’s sculptures, everyone is chiselling and scraping away at something, and they’re not sure what it will do, where it will go, or what it could look like in the end, but it feels important, more important than building bad furniture (superficially practical but bound for the scrapheap) at the vocational school from which Fonny lifted his first set of tools.
As a character, Tish feels a little bit too abstract, a little too shaped and sanded of edges next to the supremely fleshed-out charisma and spirit of Fonny; most of the out-loud work of being women falls to the supporting cast. Maybe this is also a fault in the source material, except that Tish is most strongly herself in the off-screen narration from her future self-looking back, whereas in the present, she’s a victim of the tendency to let female protagonists be defined by the drama of their lives.
Around this faded passivity, the film supplies so much texture and colour, drawing, in Jenkins’ idiosyncratic and profound way, from a well of unexpected influences. There’s a West Side Story feel to the almost technicolour streets of Tish’s romantic flashbacks, and an almost Klute-like air to the sequence in which an old friend brings a dose of trauma and fear to the young couple’s apartment. This is just me fumbling around the tip of the iceberg, because Jenkins’ objective is never straight homage but reclaiming, redefining, recontextualising. At times, it feels like entering the alternate reality where Baldwin’s novel was adapted as soon as it was published, an early ‘70s elegy not just chiming with the era, but righting old wrongs by inserting a black filmmaker’s voice into the canon’s chorus.
At other times, there’s a joy in new opportunities, bigger budgets, a new freedom to experiment in small ways. The cast is full of famous faces in small roles, all evidently eager to work with the director of Moonlight. Diego Luna recurs as the aforementioned maitre’d; Dave Franco, looking affably schlubby and moustached, appears as a prospective landlord, performing a kind of improv sequence at Fonny’s prompting that sees them both miming furniture into the empty space where the couple’s new apartment will be, fooling around while reassuring Tish of the underwhelming place’s potential (a sequence apparently not lifted from the novel). In Beale Street, the characters are as thoughtful, generous and surprising as the filmmaking. The reflected light of these crystallised little memories make the film’s ending truly luminous, only an anti-climax in the sense that it tactfully opposes and nullifies any hunger for narrative closure.