Unbow Your Head, Sister: Exploring The Beauty Of 'If Beale Street Could Talk' [NYFF]

When KiKi Layne's Tish and Stephan James' Fonny make love for the first time, If Beale Street Could Talk cuts to a golden light shimmering off the surface of a jazz record. It spins, unevenly but with purpose, carrying with it the weight of history. Of American history. Of Black American history. The history that author James Baldwin spent a lifetime pulling into the present.

The film opens with Baldwin's explanation of why Beale Street in Tennessee was chosen to title his Harlem-set romance. "Every black person in America was born on Beale Street..." he wrote, referring to both the birthplace of the blues in Memphis and to Beale Street Blues, the W. C. Handy song that captured its legacy. But even the quote from Baldwin goes on to ground the history of Beale Street in the story of his father, who he makes sure to specify was born there. Metaphorically, of course — "...born in the black neighborhood of some American city," he goes on to say, "whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy" — though one wonders to whom Baldwin was referring: his biological father, whom his mother left because of his drug abuse, or the preacher who raised him.

Director Barry Jenkins barely knew his father, the man who was his namesake. He barely knew if the man was his biological father, too; perhaps biology ought not to matter, but his father died when he was twelve, "taking to his grave the knowledge [he] was not his son," Jenkins once wrote. "In the few times his eyes met mine," he continued, "I never saw anything in them but anger and hurt." Some of what Jenkins' childhood was can be seen in Moonlight, from Little's poor Miami locale to his addict mother, but Mahershala Ali's Juan as Little's surrogate father feels like what Jenkins' childhood wasn't. A comforting addition, born as if out of wish fulfillment and a desire for children like himself to have a Juan to guide them. None of Jenkins three siblings knew their fathers either, and in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins, via Baldwin (or Baldwin, through Jenkins), tells the harrowing story of a child, Alonzo, who exists on screen only inside his mother's womb, a child who might also grow up without fully knowing his father, should America have its way.

Childhood friends Tish and Fonny find themselves in a complicated predicament. Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt, 22, is falsely accused of rape and likely headed for prison thanks to the scorn of a white police officer he once encountered (Ed Skrein, shouldering the fragile insecurity of all structural whiteness in his mere handful of scenes). Clementine "Tish" Rivers, 19, is pregnant with Fonny's child. This is where Tish begins her story, telling us of everything that happens from this point on — her family's hesitant support, Fonny's family's less-than-welcoming response, and how the two choose to progress — while taking us back to the moments leading up to her pregnancy, from a lifetime of warmth to the struggles that came alongside them, backing her and Fonny into corners at every turn. Her flashbacks slowly merge with those of all Black America, making her an occasional documentarian as her voice narrates not only Fonny's story, but the stories of brutalized and incarcerated African Americans all over the country, as the vibrant filmic images give way to stark black & white photographs of Black men being arrested or jailed by white police. While Jenkins' and cinematographer James Laxton's frame moves with an ethereal beauty, these pictures stand deafeningly still, unable to break free from the history and circumstances that bind them.

Circumstance is the main driver of Beale Street's plot. Not happenstance, mind you, but the forces that push (as if with intention) Tish, Fonny and their families to the point of desperation. Their fates are almost wholly dependent on white characters who either seek to harm them (Skrein's Officer Bell) or help them without a complete understanding of their inner lives and what they're up against (Finn Wittrock as Fonny's well-meaning lawyer Hayward). Tish heading towards motherhood as the months go by is by no means treated as a ticking clock — at around two hours in length, the film bides its time — but with each forward step and each hurdle to proving Fonny's innocence, Tish's flashbacks show us the cost of what might be lost in greater and greater detail, as Fonny remains behind bars. Regardless of its melodic pacing, the love at the center of the film and the idea that it might be lost make the story feel urgent. 

There's a unique tenderness to Tish and Fonny's budding romance, built on a foundation of childhood friendship, the kind where they threw soapy water at one another in a bathtub when they were younger. Their love grows from a place of genuine care, and despite the many hurdles to their being together — white landlords don't seem to want to rent to them — their relationship feels like it has a beautiful future, or rather it will once Tish and her family get Fonny out of prison. They're definitely going to build that apartment together, in that still-empty building, rented to them by Fonny's acquaintance Levy (Dave Franco, "[his] mother's son," taught to recognize love even through hardship) and they're definitely going to raise their child together... aren't they? The hope that peeks through every corner of the screen in the flashbacks might say so — Laxton captures golden flares in the distance, often reflected on the actors' beautiful skin — but in the present, Tish and Fonny's families keep hitting wall after wall, erected by an uncaring system.

Tish's father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Paris) are forced early on by her mother Sharon (Regina King) to move past shaming the young, unmarried, unemployed Tish and welcome her pregnancy; "Unbow your head, sister," Ernestine tells her, protective rage turning slowly to support. Fonny's father Frank (Michael Beach) joins in the celebration, though his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne) aren't as accepting of the children's sin. The family members each have their own structures to cling to in response to the larger system, little worlds they create for themselves and for each other as mechanisms to cope. Fonny has his art; he spends time carving beautiful, abstract sculptures out of wood. He even gifts one to Tish's mother, which makes Tish fall deeper in love with him. The Hunt women have religion. The Rivers family has, well, family, choosing joy and kindness even when it's difficult; Frank Hunt, Fonny's father, tries to choose the same even as his wife and daughters cling to moralizing doctrine.

The scene where the two families first meet on-screen is a delightful tête-à-tête, in which snippy insults imbued with Baldwin's eloquence result in theatrical banter, but it soon turns deathly serious when Frank's joyous, self-constructed refuge shatters in a moment of domestic violence. It forces into perspective the harsh reality that Tish's child would be born into, and yet, it further denotes the need for these self-imposed structures, as the characters attempt to recapture their status quos by falling back on them once more.

if beale street could talk review

These worlds become more personal, more intimate during the now-signature Barry Jenkins moments where time stands still and characters engage directly with the camera. The meeting of eyes that Jenkins wrote about in the context of his father, once filled with anger and hurt, continue to simmer with those same raw emotions. When the characters' eyes meet ours in these moments detached from time — asides that Spike Lee might fill with impassioned rants — they do so in moments of silent pain, dread and insecurity, as if the characters are reaching out for help (one moment in particular is especially haunting, involving Regina King's Sharon putting on her wig in the mirror, as if preparing to do battle through a retrained demeanor when all she wants to do is scream).

There exists, however, a second kind of personal close-up in the film — the kind more often seen in Moonlight — in which the characters aren't staring into some void from some imaginary place. Rather, their eyes are meeting each other in a world that feels tangible. When Fonny looks longingly at Tish, out in the open, surrounded by nature, she becomes our vessel. We see Fonny through Tish's eyes, and by merely meeting his gaze, we understand how he sees her as well. When Fonny looks at us from behind a pane of prison glass, a face full of scars and a hardened demeanor, holding back tears, still attempting to reassure Tish that their future is intact, what we see through Tish's eyes is how drastically their story has changed. When we see Tish still try to smile at us, through Fonny's eyes, we know exactly what's stake.

Beale Street lives and breathes in the moments in between the spoken words; rather than cutting from one character to the next, Jenkins and Laxton move their camera slowly between them, letting the weight of their circumstances, their fears and their very existence set like concrete in the interim. In flashback, when Fonny's friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) tells him of his false arrest and his time in prison, his whispers become magnified. The mere fear of what this system of whiteness has done to him reduces this large man to a terrified child, and we hear his every whimper as the camera floats between him and Fonny. The empty space that divides them only occupies the frame for a moment — the intent here, in part, is to capture reaction shots without breaking the flow of the dialogue — but before we move back to another human face, this in-between space becomes filled with monumental dread, given our foreknowledge of events.

When the same technique is applied to Tish and Fonny's first night together, however, this space becomes filled with an inexplicable glow, as if radiated by their naked bodies sitting across from one another. As the camera leaves one's face and starts to move to the other's, their youthful trepidation and overwhelming desire (a confounding mixture, articulated by both by precise performance and Nicholas Britell's thoughtful score) occupy this void, making it feel electric and alive. In a moment as miraculous as their creation of life, the empty space between these two people connects them, as if making them one.

The worlds these characters create — whether in the form of individual, soul-piercing stares, or moments of burning passion filmed in profile — carry with them the weight of the very history of which Tish constantly speaks. She isn't just talking about Fonny when she talks of Black men ferried into prisons and made to work as bonded labour, but about her own father, who, along with Fonny's father, turns to a life of crime just to pay Fonny's legal fees. She isn't just talking about the Black men who came before, but the Black men and women who will come after, like her own child, who may have to bear the brunt of a long and cruel legacy imposed on American Blackness. But there is beauty in this legacy, too, wherever those trapped by its walls can find or create it. There is kindness in Tish's mother's eyes; Tish carries that same kindness with her, and hopefully her child will too. When Tish finally gives birth, she cradles her baby and her mother stands over her shoulder, looking down at the child (and at us; the camera swims in the lowly bathtub in which Tish ascends to motherhood) as if connecting the dots of history across generations: the suffering that will continue at the hands of oppressors, but also the uncontainable joy that will exist as if in rebellious response.

That joy must exist, but the cost cannot be forgotten. The pre-existing, colourless pictures of Black men in chains and behind prison bars and in police lineups are presented with as much vitality as any gilded wash by Laxton, and with as much vibrancy and detail as Caroline Eselin's costumes. Each time the frame freezes on these images, Britell's music transitions towards a melancholy jazz composition that borders on ever-so-slightly on upbeat, as if capturing the beating back-and-forth of Black history through art, responding to circumstance both by reflecting it honestly and turning it into an opportunity for something joyful.

Fonny's art is his joy. The wooden sculptures he creates, captured by Jenkins in a whirlwind of cigarette smoke as Fonny himself becomes an object of desire, are his opportunity. Though in what is perhaps the most haunting image of If Beale Street Could Talk, the moment when all seems lost is presented to us as an unsculpted block of wood as Fonny exits the frame, his untapped potential simply left on the table. How much art will be left unmade, I wonder, as children are robbed of their parents? How much kindness will be left on the table, instead of being passed down from father to son?


If Beale Street Could Talk arrives November 30, 2018.