“It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”
Poetry in motion.
This is how I would describe If Beale Street Could Talk
One could argue that the cries for acceptance, healing and freedom run deeper in Jenkin’s previous, Oscar winning Moonlight, but the dance of these same longings colors the surface of If Beale Street Could Talk in a way that leaves more room for him to revel in and play with the details.
And the details are gorgeously realized. The light. The use of colors to heighten and contrast different emotions.
It’s the colors in fact that form the movement of the narrative, sometimes illuminating a moment captured in time by creating an ethereal and angelic glow, while in others calling us back towards a moment now seemingly lost in time as the color fades into or settles into the background. This is the movement that opens the film, a glorious burst of color that settles in on the image of that glass wall which separates Tish and Alonzo, a working symbol of all the things that can separate us from capturing the beauty of a moment.
The Beauty of A Human Moment
I know it’s not appropriate to measure one film against another, but the whole time I was watching this my mind kept going back to my experience of Roma, another Oscar hopeful that holds similar themes. Both are exceptional works of cinematography. Both films are also anchored thematically by a concern for illuminating culture and giving us a picture of the oppressed. They both hinge on a scene of conception (or in the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, a series of scenes that set the stage for the conception), and both hinge on a birthing scene. Most importantly, both films are equally interested in the question, do you want this child? A question that is framed against the backdrop of a world filled with oppression, racism, culture, personal hurt and poverty. This is the world they are bringing this child into and the knowledge that continues to haunt them.
Two different culture, two different worlds but two similarly interested films in working with the nature of this divide.
And yet, where Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps the divided world of his film sharply in focus with his use of slow, panning shots and detailed setting, Jenkins illuminates a world that is also beautiful. A world in which human connection can burst through the dimmed colors of that distant reality at any moment. The tenderness of the conception, the beauty of the birth scene, the slow dance of the central characters romance and imagination, the subtle importance of the acceptance they find in family. These things underlined for me what was missing in Roma- that human connection.
The backdrop, the music, the way the camera is able to hide and conceal and reveal all in a single scene. The way it layers the romance in shots of perspective. The way it follows the baby out of the water in a symbolic burst of light. Where I felt the cinematography overwhelmed the humanity in Roma, here it accents the beauty of these moments, giving us room as viewers to not only immerse ourselves in the world of culture and division, but to revel in that sense of longing that is so pervasive throughout this story in way that helps us see and experience a journey, a movement.
The film is not absent of the despair and struggle and everyday monotony that is so prominent in Roma. There is division and there is the pain of an isolated and oppressed culture. There is the corrupted image of a street that holds in its stone promenades the story of a divided Country. This is the one side of that glass wall. But it doesn’t want to leave us there. It allows the characters to bridge the coldness and the distance in order to give us that sense of closeness, intimacy, warmth and love that its centrals characters, and we if we are honest, so desperately long for.
It shows the two sides of this world, one their given reality and the second their hopeful reality. And sometimes hard work, the hopeful work is required to capture the notes of the second.
It’s a bit of a lengthy quote that I did my best to condense, but I really like how author DeRay McKesson puts it in his book “On The Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope”, a book he wrote about and for the given reality of African Americans in this Country:
“Faith is the belief that certain outcomes will happen and hope the belief that certain outcomes can happen…. Faith is rooted in certainty, hope is rooted in possibility- they both require their own different kinds of work. That faith is rooted in certainty does not mean that it never wavers… (but) the work at hand is hope-work… the absence of hope, not its presence, is a burden for people of color… I think faith is actually the burden that people have misnamed as theburden of hope… when my faith waivers, my hope carries me through.
Freedom is not only the absence of oppression, but is also the presence of justice and joy. We are fighting to bring about a world that we have not seen before. We have never seen a world of equity, justice and joy. We are trying to create something altogether new. And it is impossible to create something new in the absence of hope.
We have a hope rooted in a belief that as sure as hands have made the buildings that dominate the skylines of our cities, hands have made the institutions, practices, and customs that perpetuate racism and injustice that permeate those same cities. What is made by human hands requires maintainance. Buildings can be torn down and built over. Parking lots can become parks and vice versa. Institutions can evolve, change, or be dismantled.
Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays. Hope is not magic. Hope is work. Let’s get to work.
– Deray Mckesson
The Hopeful Work
“From my chair, I looked out my window, over these dreadful streets.
The baby asked,
‘Is there not one righteous among them?”
The characters in this story, all bound by their current reality in one form or another, are at this hopeful work. Bound to their reality but also desperate to hold on to the belief that tomorrow can be, and will be better.
Like the gaze of those eyes that once held them so firmly together in the ability to know and be known in a difficult world, now drifting through the course of this film against the confines of that glass wall. The way it culminates in these eyes meeting once again.
Like the differing experiences of faith in God that culminates in the hope of that final scene- hands held, hearts open, eyes now shifting towards the illuminating sense of that fresh glimpse of a new burst of color that now occupies their space with them.
Or the way it takes the hopelessness of this journey, the moments now lost in time, and finds them again anew in unexpected ways and unexpected places. The subtlety of dancing through the streets to the slow and winding rhythms of the films glorious soundtrack. The slow curve of the absolutely wonderful Kiki Lane’s smile forming out of the sadness.
A Street That Paves The Way Forward
This is a truly beautiful film framed by closeness, intimacy, warmth and love. But most of all framed by its ability to capture those human moments, both lost and in time. The image of that conception and the birth taken together is what bridges both sides of this mirror. It is the picture through which the human moment is allowed to burst through the faded colors of their past. And it is a reminder of the power of the human moment to create something beautiful in its midst. A street that paves the way forward towards hope.
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”