To help celebrate Christmas this year I chose a grouping of films to watch over the Advent season (6 in total), with each film coinciding with one of the virtues that Advent celebrates through the lighting of the candles. The first Sunday is hope, and the second Sunday is Faith. This past Sunday, for which I chose my favorite film of last year “If Beale Street Could Talk”, was Joy. With the emphasis that Advent places on darkness and light, where we arrive at joy in this seasonal and liturgical process is by way of the darkness that helps emphasize the slow and gradual illumination of the light.
I chose this film to represent JOY because of the way it approaches its narrative structure as a gradual and growing contrast of light and dark with the darkness giving emphasis to the light through intimate and personal cinematic process. In the very first scene we hear the words spoken from the novel on which this film is based, declaring “I hope no one has to look at someone they love through glass.” Love becomes the bearer of the light, which is an integral part of the films visual telling. The light comes in swaths and bursts in this story, often times sneaking through the darkest of places. It illuminates and uplifts, carrying the characters in this story forward into a uncertain future in which hope and defeat wage constant war.
Ths glass symbolizes the darkness. The darkness permeates this love story, but at the same time it helps to illuminate the films larger social commentary and context, the world into which love is ultimately expressed. The story of this central couple separated by the glass and bars of these prison walls informs the larger reality of the Black experience as a social reality, and the Black experience likewise informs their personal story.
What holds the light and dark in relationship to each other as informing entities is the image of this promised and expectant baby. The hopeful words that follow the films opening sentence are simply this- “We’re having a baby… don’t you worry.”
Structurally speaking, the film then moves to give context for the love story that gave life to this child first, and the tragic story that found this love story strained, challenged and separated by glass second.
At the heart of this love story is the challenge that finds the welcome of this baby into the world. Conceived into a world of hope and faith, the childs conception is marred by the darkness of their circumstance. A strained situation reflective of a broken world where the mention near the beginning of a longed for family and marriage, this once hoped for future, gives way to the reality of the prison walls, a burdened and impoverished Black community, alienation and judgement, and vast feelings of uncertainty. In some ways it’s not unlike the story of Mary, who found herself stigmatized and equally burdened by outside pressures as the baby she bears sits in direct contrast to the darkness that surrounds her in the Christmas narrative.
There is a powerful exchange that happens between the two families that becomes framed by two strong sentiments- That the child “was born of sin,” but also that “my” child will be forgiven… even now locked up in some dungeon. “only the love of God will get him out.” This is followed up by the statement “what difference does it make how it gets here, this is still your (grand) child.” This statement speaks to the baby, but even more directly to their judgment and acceptance of the couple, their grown children.
These two statements positioned together evoke the present darkness and the hope of an illuminating light. The hoped for family and marriage in this film symbolizes what is a lost hope. As they say in the end of the film, “We still aren’t married. After all that’s happened, neither of us cares what that means.” For this couple, they know the darkness that has imposed itself on them. In the scene that opens the film, she is the one telling him to not worry. Later on, following a sequence in which their hopes feel all but lost, we hear her quietly speak the words “Lord have mercy” and him being the one to now encourage her and tell her not to worry.
This becomes a pivotal point in the film in which hopelessness then leads to this ultimate picture of hopefulness, the arrival of this expectant child bursting into the world in a grand display of light. It’s an incredible moment, and I think it encapsulates what the joy of Christmas is all about. Into the darkest of places the Christ Child arrives, and in this Child we find the promise of what feels like a still uncertain future. That’s what we hold onto, and that is where we are free to reclaim the joy that this season offers. Not that things will be made right in the here and now or that our problems will be solved. The film brilliantly leaves the idea of him getting out of prison and them getting married and how long they will remain separated as ambiguous. We arent given this information. What we do get to see though is a joy reclaimed through the promise of this child. As she says in the end, “we have the life we have been given, and by (this life) our children can be free.
This is what it means to be a Christian. We are children of God made free to live into and towards the promise of a redeemed and just world. By recognizing the darkness we can then see the light. We can have faith that we are not alone because love alone remains stronger than the darkness. This promise is written all over the film, this sense of knowing what this love is. We see it when she says, “even though he was turned away laughing, he was still holding my hand.” Or when the best friend breaks down seeing their love and says, “I ain’t got nothing like that.” And it’s a love that is meant to emanate outwards in both directions, from God and family to them, and from them to their child and the world.
Its a love that breaks through with the call to “not be afraid” and to lift up our head. And this lifting up comes to fruition in the films final scene where a young boy draws and writes a hopeful picture of their family together and calls them to lift their heads in prayer towards the light once again. This is pure and true joy expressed in an unshakeable and eternal fashion.
The beauty in this film uncovers the darkness, but it also exposes us to the light. The way it captures their relationship, born from their own Beale Street setting (which is symbolic for the darkness of the larger social reality they live in) and one marred by the darkness of their experience, illuminates with the joy of finding moments of dancing and holding and loving in its midst. They have joy because they know they are not alone. They have joy because the judgment that comes in the beginning of the film by both family and society gives way to a love that calls them out of the darkness and sets them free to live towards a greater and redeemed reality, letting them know they arent forgotten, that they are forgiven, that they are loved and that they are not alone. A true picture of Christmas indeed.