Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: If Beale Street Could Talk

Image: Annapurna Pictures

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Directors: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry

Streaming Service: Amazon Prime

My latest pick for Streaming’s Hidden Treasures is Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. As a privileged white man, I feel that the amount of opinions and proclamations of real worth that I can contribute to the Black Lives Matter discussion right now is limited. The time has come for people such as myself not just to talk, but to listen. So here I am recommending a fantastic film by a black filmmaker, about black lives, and told from a black perspective. As a piece of art and as a means of communicating to those who may be ignorant, that is in itself invaluable. It also happens to be a great piece of filmmaking in so many ways.

The follow-up to Jenkins’ historic Oscar-winner MoonlightIf Beale Street Could Talk adapts the novel of the same name by James Baldwin and centres on the story of young couple Fonny and Tish. The action moves between two timelines: one, showing the stirrings of romance between these childhood best friends, and the palpable love they feel for each other; the other, following Tish and family as they fight to get Fonny released from jail, where he is serving time for a crime he did not commit.

Through both timelines, every frame of the film is gorgeously constructed. Despite telling a serious, gritty story and depicting the pain that comes with it, Jenkins still imbues his film with a sense of lushness and period detail. The images are crisp, the shots carefully-composed, and the actors’ faces are imprinted with love and longing. There’s little narrative thrust to the film, which might not sit perfectly with some, but as with Moonlight Jenkins crafts a film that really allows you to feel along with its characters.

The difficulties of being black in America are clear in the film, but this isn’t a broad polemic. Instead, to great effect, Jenkins chooses to narrow in on two people and their relationship, and then how the uncaring society around them affects it. We spend so much time with Tish and Fonny where they are saying nothing, that we feel as if we are almost part of their relationship. We join them in the gaps in conversation and in the longing glances at each other. It’s refreshing to see two black characters tenderly fall in love on screen, and then quite alarming when you realise how infrequent that sight is. If Beale Street Could Talk is about loyalty, family, and injustice, but it is perhaps most concerned with love.

It is Jenkins’ commitment to love throughout the story that makes the fight for justice so heart-rending. Like Tish, we do not for one second doubt Fonny’s innocence, because we have properly got to know him as a character. Despite dealing with the heavy themes of racism and injustice, the overriding tone of the film is hope. The characters start hopeful, and they end hopeful. They are practised in dealing with the racism they face on a daily basis, but they do not accept it. Tish and Fonny, with love on their side, never stop believing in and fighting for a better life.

They are not alone in this. One of the greatest strengths of Beale Street is that it has such a strong focus on its central relationship, but still manages to find time for numerous well-drawn, vivid supporting characters. This is best illustrated in a long scene where Tish and Fonny’s families gather together. Some of the characters only get this one scene, but every one makes their mark, brimming with more energy and personality than you see in some entire films. The way they speak and interact is full of both tension and mirth, creating an atmosphere that is deeply compelling.

This scene, like the whole film, is full of great acting. Kiki Layne and Stephan James are strong as the young lovers, but it’s hard to argue that anyone but Regina King, as Tish’s stoic yet cheery mother, is the stand-out. She won an Oscar for her performance, and anchors some of the film’s most affecting scenes.

Good writing and performances like the ones in If Beale Street Could Talk can almost make you giddy with excitement, because they offer a proper invitation into the world they are depicting. The characters feel real, tangible and warm, so you want to spend time with them. Barry Jenkins depicts some very troubling things in this film, but he always does so through the lens of individual stories. He guides us elegantly through Baldwin’s world with a real care for its characters, and a constant wit, style and sensitivity to his filmmaking.

Andrew Young