Beale Street Blues

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

Barry Jenkins is a straight man who seems to be making gay-themed films — his last one, which I recall a bit of a sense of agnosticism about, Moonlight, rightly won the Oscar over La La Land. Here Jenkins adapts the late novel by the great gay African American writer, James Baldwin, in a project that has been long in development. I confess I haven’t yet read the novel, but I gather the ending has been softened, but it remains a powerful piece.

At the film’s heart are two heterosexual lovers, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who have been friends since childhood in the Bronx and have finally realised they should be together. Fonny is an aspiring artist and Tish works on the perfume counter of a department store. But New York is still a racist city and it takes time for them to find an apartment — in the end they are going for a loft conversion in a disused warehouse.

For much of the first half of the film, the camera loves them and Tish is in virtually every scene — it is her gaze we get, especially at Fonny. Jenkins focuses tightly on faces, on them looking, at times through plate glass, at times staring into space (and the abyss). Later, and necessarily, we get to see other characters — their fathers, Fonny with a friend, a sequence in Puerto Rico — as well as the interjection of archive (and faux archive) photographs (Gordon Parks gets a credit).

But we need drama and the course of true love is unsettled by Fonny being framed for a crime it is clear he did not commit — the tension is not did he do it, but will he be acquitted? There’s a politics to false allegations, of course — listen to her — but the history of this in relation to African American men is a bloody one, In the meantime, Tish finds herself pregnant.

Just to make sure the acceptance of this does not seem a bit unlikely (the two are not married, it is the 1970s), a cameo from Aunjanue Ellis as Mrs. Hunt, Fonny’s mother, shows the judgemental reaction. She risks stealing the scene, and I wish she had reappeared later in the film to give her some nuance; all the other African American characters have rich hinterlands, but she is not allowed to develop. It is testimony to the structural inequalities of Hollywood and distribution (and, I confess, my viewing habits), that such characters bantering, being mutually supportive, being strong and noble, still feels rare. Too often we get tokenism.

And just to complicate matters, alongside all the female gazes at men, there is a moment, a frisson, between Fonny and Pedrocito (Diego Luna), a look that seems a beat too long, too held. The two characters are friends, of course, but I felt twinge that was a tiny bit more than homosociality.

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