There’s an incredible sequence in Spike Lee’s latest provocation, BlacKkKlansman, that fills the screen with the gorgeous, rapt faces of young black attendees of a Civil Rights rally as they listen to a Black Power speech in stunned, inspired awe. The actors are framed in a formalist, lyrical manner that more closely resembles the portraiture of fine art photography than the usual methods & tones of narrative filmmaking. If Beale Street Could Talk extends the fine art portraiture of that one sequence to establish the commanding ethos of its entire runtime. The most arresting, meaningful stretches of Barry Jenkins’s latest feature are composed entirely of contemplative, black faces staring down the barrel of the camera as the (Oscar-nominated) music swells to match the beauty & tragedy of their isolated portraits. It’s an unusual storytelling tool for cinema, outside maybe art installation videos running on loop in a modern art gallery, but it’s something Jenkins also employed to great effect in his previous feature, the Oscar-winning Moonlight. It’s something that feels even more unexpected here than in Moonlight, however, as If Beale Street Could Talk is initially grounded in a much less lyrical, more narratively-bound approach to cinematic storytelling. The portraits-in-motion open the film up to more adventurous, tonally intense modes of storytelling the film initially seems too reserved to explore, the same way BlacKkKlansman’s portraits are one of the first deviations that break it free from its own buddy cop comedy & blacksploitation-throwback genre groves. It’s through those portraits’ quiet beauty & deep sense of hurt that you first get a taste of just how poetic & formally challenging If Beale Street Could Talk is willing to be in time.
The trick to fully appreciating If Beale Street Could Talk‘s poetic lyricism is patience. Whereas Moonlight‘s triptych story structure & general dreamlike stupor immediately announces its value as an Art Film, this follow-up’s own revelation of its poetic nature is more gradual & delicate, like watching a flower bloom. Adapted from an unfinished James Baldwin novel, the film profiles two young lovers in 1970s Harlem whose lives are derailed by a racist justice system when one is imprisoned for a crime he could not have possibly committed. Pregnant at 19 and struggling to fund her would-be husband’s legal defense while he withers in jail, our centering protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) finds moments of respite & determination in recounting how their young, blossoming love was left to rot on the vine thanks to the bitter, unjust anger of white police in their community. Her voiceover narration & the rigid flashback structure initially dress the film in the appearance of something much more familiar & well-behaved than what’s ultimately delivered. As the picture develops & the petals unfold, If Beale Street Could Talk reveals itself to be a strange, circular, eerily beautiful art piece just as adventurous as the more immediately arresting Moonlight. Characters speak with a weirdly mannered stage play dialogue that stays defiantly true to the literary source material despite its newfound medium. Jazz, sculpture, fashion, and poetry swirl in the foreground to construct a portrait of black Harlem at its most beautiful & alive, while a larger American menace (mainly racist cops & white landlords) creeps in to stomp out that romantic, creative spark. Most clearly and intensely, however, it’s the weighty effect of the close-up portraits of characters at their most emotional & vulnerable that really detaches the film from standard cinematic storytelling to something much more ambitious & transcendent, a far cry from the mannered drama it initially projects.
On just a basic level of aesthetic beauty, If Beale Street Could Talk is a soaring achievement. The fashion, music, and portraiture of its vision of 1970s Harlem are an overwhelming sensual experience that fully conveys the romance & heartbreak of its central couple in crisis. It’s initially difficult to gauge exactly how tonally & structurally ambitious the film will become, but by the time Tish is recounting America’s long history of Civil Rights abuses over real-life photographs from our not-too-distant past, it almost feels like an excerpt from the James Baldwin-penned essay film I Am Not Your Negro, a much more structurally radical work from start to end. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s merits as a boundary-testing art piece require patience & trust on the audience’s end, but it’s something Jenkins has earned from us (and then some) with his previous work. And while it may take a while for our eyes to adjust to the full magnitude of what he’s attempting to accomplish here, he fills the frame with plenty of rich, immediate pleasures (and heartbreak) to see us through while the full picture blooms.