If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’ second feature film, following the success of Moonlight (2016). Beale Street, set in 1970s West Harlem, follows a newly pregnant black woman, Tish (Kiki Layne), as she struggles to prove the innocence of her lover, Fonny (Stephan James), in a rape crime. While integrating heavy subjects into an otherwise romantic plot, Jenkins chooses immersive, evocative scores. Tish and Fonny’s love shines like a summer day in New York, whereas their obstacles hit like jarring thunderstorms.
Beale Street, a 1.8-mile long street in Memphis, used to be a commercial district for black Memphis and housed its most famous newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech. In the late 1800s, a black businessman named Robert Church bought land around Beale Street; his purchase allowed economic opportunity for black Memphians in the early 1900s when racial injustice was still inherent. This economic prosperity helped to enrich the culture and artistry of the region. According to Black Past, “when blues musician W.C. Handy moved to Memphis in 1909, Beale Street was on its path to becoming synonymous with the best blues music in America.”
In the film, Jenkins doesn’t make an obvious connection to the actual street. Rather, its name stands for a symbol: the unspoken, rich African-American culture capped by racial discussions. The story, like the street from which it took inspiration, celebrates the livelihood and strength of the African-American community. Starring an almost all-black cast, the film shares a familiar story of raw American racism. Fonny is a sculptor who lives in Harlem, and he is perhaps a synecdoche for any black artist who dismantles the pervasive stereotypes of young black men. His is a soft tone, particularly when speaking to Tish. Fonny’s story is told predominantly through Tish’s lens and narration, as she’s undoubtedly the film’s heart and soul. Her voice-over, combined with a hazy visual effect, creates a tenderness which contradicts the film’s violent moments.
At the dinner table, Tish’s mom tells her father and sister that Tish is pregnant. Despite her father’s furrowed brows and her sister’s confused eyes, they soon congratulate her. And yet the family dynamics shown are diverse: when Fonny’s family visits Tish’s apartment after dinner, they seem richer, or at least more posh. His highly religious mother is stunned by the pregnancy announcement and calls the baby a “child born of sin.”
Settings play an important role in Beale Street. Fonny’s basement apartment doesn’t only speak to his personality and artistry, but functions as a safe, intimate space for him and his lover. In a way, the basement symbolises their inner world: a hiding place, underground and excluded from the rest of the world. Quite similar to the apartment, the prison visitation room is where most of the couple’s heavy conversations happen. Mark Friedberg said in an interview with Architectural Digest, “I took Barry to a real prison where we could shoot, and after standing there for a minute or two, I could tell he didn't like it. He said, 'We’re not making a movie about what it's like to be black and in prison in America; people know that story. This is a story of people with perseverance in the face of all that.'" During the scenes set in prison, the cinematography switches to a close-up shot and the characters look right into the camera lens. As a result, we as viewers feel like we’re being addressed.
A mesmerizing combination of beautiful shots and dazzling music, Beale Street is a captivating hybrid of romance and crime-drama. Fonny is just another young black man being framed for a crime because of a white cop’s preconceived notions about race, and Tish is just another young black woman being fetishized for her “exotic” appearance by white men. The movie raises many questions, many of which remain unanswered. Beale Street’s anti-climatic ending perhaps proves a bleak point: a black man’s story doesn’t always have a happy ending.