Take in the image: Two black faces, one woman, the other a man, their dark skin lit by fluorescents, their words saying everything and nothing at once—free to be who they are, and who they hope to be.
This scene from Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t remarkable: just two bodies, a little light and a feeling. Great, but then take in the rest of this moment: a jail cell, a window of separation, a pregnant girlfriend, and a falsely accused boyfriend. It’s an image I don’t often expect to see—especially in film—where an experience of black love feels justifiably grim, but remedied by something beautiful like, “you know I love you.”
That L-worded exchange between two black bodies takes a subtle touch to feel honest; a certain something that Jenkins does with warm humanism and bleak-as-hell realness in this in this James Baldwin adaptation. It’s “real” in its acknowledgement that wrongful incarceration, discrimination and oppression go hand in hand with the black experience. But “humanistic” in the solution to those problems—a silent gaze, a smile and a touch. It isn’t the civil rights protest that hushes black pain here, just the gentle moment when affection is the strongest nourishment available in a white America. To put it bluntly, Jenkins adapted something that I feel to my core is the most raw understanding of black romance on screen, and it’s one that’ll earn him all the praise from both a commercial and critical standpoint.
Now going off the source material, understand that I’d been a James Baldwin stan for some time. I consider the American novelist my damn uncle. And Uncle Jimmie has a gift that’s motherfucking phenomenal—his use of language to state what’s harsh and raw. A basic theme around love, like in the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, can become a Baldwin meditation about the systematic concerns plaguing black America—an indictment of unequal ideals. Plot-wise, the film version changes none of that scope. We’re still getting a black guy in a 1970s Harlem named Fonny (Stephan James), deep in a cesspool of injustice for crimes that he didn’t commit (rape). And we’re still given that tale through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), told in a series of memories, drifting from Fonny’s present circumstance, to his past and her own—an organically built community. She loves Fonny, is about to have a baby with Fonny, and remains the only thing that can sustain Fonny.
For years, I’ve loved the texture of this story for the same reasons that my favourite Black romances have directly or indirectly been attached to the larger themes of my life—the racism, issues of identity, family, and feelings of inferiority. They’ve had to be more than love stories. They’ve had to be the musings of my own navigations around this thing called blackness. It’s so rare to have a film that makes the subject of “love” become the primary antidote to all of that. Not love for the sake of love’s sake. But love for the sake of survival.
What feels different in this 2018 take is in Jenkin’s ability to bring those hybrids of pain and joy with a visual symbolism—something I’ve only seen before in the groundbreaking Moonlight.
In the case of Beale Street, that love is an open defiance to an ugliness that runs without instruction. You just feel that shit. In one scene for example, our main man Fonny whispers sweet nothings in Tish’s ear—a slow-panning camera circling the two, painting their unforgiving world in a blur next to their physical happiness. Black complexions are made perfect in this moment. They are both beautiful. Their joy is unbothered. And I completely get this movie at this point. I get it in the same way I see butterflies when my girl gives me an unprovoked smile. Worldly nonsense can’t touch me in this moment. It can’t tap into my outrage and call me nigga. It has no power next to my other half with her similar skin and familiar scars. There’s a comfort in never feeling alone in that. In knowing that what you feel from an instance of prejudice is shared on a literal level rather than just a theoretical one. A ying and yang’d reality made plain in Beale Street.
Every moment of Jenkin’s vision looks to beautify a section of ugly and make an art form of that moment. A face heavy conversation between Fonny and a racist officer becomes a history between a country and its enemy. A separation of prison glass between Tish and her lover becomes the literal and figurative system seeking to destroy them both. When I view Beale Street as art imitating life, I see the similar beauty through my own experiences. The ugly that was often made beautiful from the love of a mother, aunt, and lover—people who understood my own pain through experience, and by extension, knew the strokes needed to paint my life colour. This is the task Barry Jenkins was given, to overwhelm the topic of systematic oppression with a feelable fondness. And like all the loved ones who’ve done this for me, he did the best job anyone could possibly do in painting that Baldwin-made world.
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