The first cinematic adaptation of the writing of James Baldwin, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps perplexingly but undeniably fittingly in light of the writers’ artistic omnivorousness, takes its most obvious cues not from Baldwin’s profession but from the profession of its main male character. If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young African-American couple Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), nineteen, and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), twenty-two and working as a sculptor’s apprentice who conjures visions of tragically stilled beauty that the film, if not modeling itself after, at least siphons energy from.
If Beale Street Could Talk by no means avoids the troubling contours of being an African-American in mid-century New York, but it does defray them, or at least deflect them. Its aesthetic orientation is not that of a neo-realist’s aspiration to open a window onto a harsh, unforgiving world, and it exhibits little affinity for the (expected) Hollywood New Wave tricks of filming this city in this time-period in tones and textures that emphasize its grubby, calloused veneer, excoriating the surface-sheen and exposing the rot underneath. Like Fonny’s abstract sculptures – which provide a clue-in to the film’s magisterial tone and introspective magnificence – Jenkins’ vision of Beale Street is (excessively?) mannered, scrubbing away some of the rough edges and burnt ends of lived experience rather than providing an unvarnished portrait.
Rather than a brutal empirical truth – film as objective revelation of racism’s scabrous realities – Jenkins’ poetic truth captures a kind of pantomime of characters performing a more innocent world, African-Americans on the verge of a neoliberal world just trying to live out a pageant of unobstructed time, holding on to the dream of an open, unafflicted world they know to be fragile and fraudulent. It doesn’t feel like a film from either the nihilistic ‘70s or the increasingly cynical ‘10s. Consider the magic moment at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Mrs. Miller’s enraptured gaze is revealed to be the deluded dream of an opiated woman unable to cope with capitalism’s oppression. Without denying the very real terrors of the outside world, Jenkins prefers to hold us in the diamond’s eye, fully aware that sometimes these dreams are all we have. His tender film could and has been accused of sanctimoniousness, but it offers a thoroughly oneiric reverie, not for a forgotten world but for a kind of placid, untouched existence that its protagonists never had. Continue reading