What is Black Love?:
An Introduction to If Beale Street Could Talk
image credit: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-we-trust-the-beauty-of-barry-jenkinss-if-beale-street-could-talk
Daniel E. Williams
What is love? Or more specifically, in this case, what is Black Love? A few years ago, a friend of mine posted an image on Facebook of President and First Lady Obama. Under the image, the words, in a flowing, cursive font, proudly stated “Black Love.” While I acknowledge that the Obamas are indeed black, I also thought to myself, is the love they have for each other somehow different from the love two other people might have for each other? I know that socialization, economics, genetic traits, and a whole host of other factors shape the varied dimensions of a relationship, but for sake of argument, we have to generalize a bit.
If Beale Street Could Talk is not the first black film about black love. Hollywood has sporadically financed a film about black people attempting to successfully navigate the swirling seas of their romantic lives. Independent black filmmakers have often explored the genre, particularly during the late eighties and throughout the nineties when the commercial potential of black film revealed itself in familiar genres such as sexual thrillers, comedies (romantic and all the other sub-genres), and what affectionately became known as “hood films.” If Beale Street Could Talk is, however, the first film adapted from a James Baldwin novel.
The elements of the film that draw most of my attention, besides the emotionally devastating pain, heartache, shame, and joy experienced by the two families in the film, are the film’s aesthetics – the way the film lives, breathes, sounds, looks, and the energy it conveys. And there is also evidence of this aesthetic in Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016).
James Baldwin stories often weave back and forth across indeterminate stretches of time, fluid like water. The development of film grammar, coupled with how our brains process images and structural patterns, allows the film to move through time with similar fluidity. The pattern becomes clear early on, and the ever- sustaining love between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) butts against the discrimination in the justice system, and the precariousness of life when you are a poor, black person in 1970s New York. All of these various narrative elements are tethered together by Tish’s voice over.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a visual poem of faces, intimate, searching, each character allowed to project the essence of their souls directly into ours. In these close ups, Jenkins is able to subtly transition from a predominantly used third person perspective (although nothing in cinema is third person, just like in fiction, the narrative voice, regardless of point of view, is always the writer’s), and a distinctive first person point of view, in which the camera assumes the position of one of the characters, and the other character (or other actor) stares directly into the camera lens. The audience is placed in that moment, that space, and that often lingers in time, until the narrative engine of the plot moves forward again.
As in the novel, Tish tells the story and guides us on the journey. Jenkins crafts a number of visually and sonically complex sequences that visualize the various individuals and circumstances in flux with Fonny’s plight, seemingly from Tish’s emotional perspective. In addition, there are other brief sequences, once again accompanied by Tish’s voice over, which serve to summarize plot details, but are also designed to examine, in an expansive way, larger, societal ills; a society that was created on a system of oppression.
The photography has a subtle softness to it. The color palette, the production design, the specific accents of contrasting color, all stands out from the deep, earth tones that often surround the characters. Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, also often employ a shallow depth of field, creating obvious, soft, out of focus backgrounds behind the close up of a character, further isolating them, making them stand out, making us notice them, and see them.
In one of the textbooks I use for class, the author talks about the economy of film grammar. Within this philosophy, the strongest and most economical creative choices make for a more distinct and effective communication. In other words, it is not about the number of shots, but the shots themselves and what those shots are doing. Jenkins is confident enough in his creative choices to allow shots to linger and scenes to evolve. Extended shot duration, gliding tracking shots, floating hand-held camera movement, all flow like water. For an audience conditioned on a certain rapidity of image juxtaposition, the approach Jenkins and his editor use requires our attention. Our minds may drift, and ponder, “Why is this shot so long?” Yet in these moments, gaze at the character. See the thoughts and emotions on their face. And accept that this film will move on its own design.
In the end, the love between Tish and Fonny endures, as it should in what is essentially a story about enduring love. However, the love is consistently and continually challenged. It has to fight for its existence. And this brings us back around to the antagonist: society.
So what is black love? Is black love somehow intrinsically unique from the expressions of love between people who are not black? Consider that black people in the United States have a collective, ancestral history that is unique. The system that orchestrated the existence of black people in America also subjugated those same black people, and the obliteration of compassion, desire, and the love for another contributes to the success of that oppression. So maybe by definition, black love is a thing. And the existence of black love is incredible. And the existence of films about black love is also a form of resistance, a revolutionary act that shouts we are also human.