If Beale Street Could Talk

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The Gospel According to Barry Jenkins: Sacramental moments and human beauty in If Beale Street Could Talk 

Spoiler alert: this article contains discussion of key plot points

Barry Jenkins’ new film If Beale Street Could Talk tells a story of a young black couple, Tish and Fonny, in 70s Harlem, and how despite systemic racism keeping them apart, love sustains them. The film contains rage at racial injustice, but even more it celebrates love as a real power that can overcome adversity. If it wasn’t clear from his previous film Moonlight, then If Beale Street Could Talk makes it plain: there is no hint of cynicism in Jenkins’ worldview; he is a sincere believer in the power of love. In Beale Street, this belief finds new expression through a reclaiming of religious language, and a defiant presentation of all-conquering beauty. 

Religious language is first introduced in the ‘family meeting’ scene that crystalizes many of the film’s key themes. “This is a sacrament”, says Tish’s mother Sharon, when toasting Tish’s pregnancy. Biblical phrases and concepts will recur throughout the film. In flashback Tish recalls hers and Fonny’s shared childhood with language straight out of Genesis: “We were flesh of each other’s flesh”, she says. “We were naked together and felt no shame”. Fonny’s father Joe’s words have a distinctly Old Testament ring to them when he says, “these are our children, and we got to set them free”. The prayer that ends the film, from the mouth of Fonny and Tish’s young son, seems to be a hopeful declaration of faith.

But religious language in cinema is more commonly associated with judgment and injustice, and the same is true here. In that family meeting scene, events come to a head when Fonny’s staunchly religious mother Sheila condemns the unborn child to shrivel and die in the womb as a result of its “sinful” conception, and suggests that perhaps Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment is part of God’s plan, “to get my boy to think on his sins”. Jenkins won’t settle for this though; his intent is to reclaim religious language from the voice of judgement, and point it towards something more hopeful. 

This intent is most strongly and determinedly felt in the character of Tish’s mother, Sharon. She rejects Sheila’s understanding of how God might look at the situation. “What difference does it make how any of us get here?” she pleads. That line, heart-piercingly delivered by Regina King, is a question to all self-righteous people of faith who sit in judgement of any other based on circumstances of birth, skin colour or sexuality. Life is life, and life is holy, and we all get it the same way: as a gift. 

Rather, Sharon represents a faith centred on love, and love without limits; love beyond reason, in fact. In another of the film’s key lines, Sharon says to Tish, “I don’t want to sound foolish, but you have trusted love this far; don’t panic now. Trust it all the way”. There is another biblical echo here, in the upside-down idea of perceived foolishness shaming those things that are considered wise in the eyes of the world. 

But for all her love, Sharon cannot save Fonny from his fate. After Sharon has expended herself, travelled to Puerto Rico to plead with Victoria Rogers to take back her false accusation of Fonny, and only succeeded in further upsetting Victoria, she looks up as if abandoned by God. What do you do when you have trusted love all the way, and it seems to have failed you? 

Jenkins’s answer is, I think, found in the glorious aesthetics of the film. This is a movie bathed in beauty, lushly photographed and with an orchestral score that turns every scene into a sacred moment. Jenkins says, “The film is told from Tish’s point of view. And so it’s really a series of memories… And when she’s remembering these very bright moments, they can be saturated, they can be quite golden… And I think in that way you arrive at an image that is at times almost impossibly beautiful.”[1] These memories are also sacraments, reminders of life’s beauty in the midst of suffering. This film is an effort to outshine the darkness that surrounds its characters with a show of beauty; humanity lit in a gorgeous glow.

In one amazing scene, Fonny catches up with his friend Daniel – a powerful performance by Brian Tyree Henry – whom he soon learns is not long out of an unjustly earned two years in prison. The “white man”, they agree, “must be the devil”, for all the evils he can mete out upon the black man in America with impunity. And then in the midst of this darkness, the joy of hospitality emerges. Daniel’s simple request for another beer is met with a delighted response from Fonny, as if nothing could be more meaningful in that moment than for him to give Daniel a beer. Even this seemingly small act is another sacrament; one that Fonny feels privileged to have the means to offer. 

Beale Street is hallmarked by many of these moments, often accompanied by characters looking straight to camera – most affectingly in a scene when Tish recalls conceiving the baby. These are divine moments, offered to the audience with absolute sincerity. 

The great American writer Marilynne Robinson recently reflected on the value of art in words that speak directly to Jenkins’ work: “Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift. If we are making the last testament to the nature of human life, or if we are only one more beleaguered generation in a series whose end we cannot foresee, each of us and all of us know what human beauty would look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.”[2] 

Barry Jenkins is pouring his heart out to let human beauty have its moment. It would only be right to hope that he could solve some of the world’s problems in doing so.

Paul Gallagher
GFT Programme Manager
January 2019

[1] ‘Street Spirit’, interview with Barry Jenkins, The Skinny, Feb 2019

[2] ‘Awakening’ in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson (Virago, 2015)

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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