Beale Street’s Tragedy Made Gorgeous

In If Beale Street Could Talk, the ugliness of oppression and persecution stand in tense contrast with Barry Jenkins' lush, color-drenched cinematography.

The great James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk has been adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) with tremendous reverence, as if trying to fulfill a sacred trust. This made me extremely anxious.

I admit that’s just me. Always had a problem with reverence. I blame all those gleefully impious Loony Tunes cartoons that comprised the basis of my childhood education.

Nobody else is likely to sit in the theater uneasily clutching the arm handles of their seat during the most beatific parts of this film. To get a quick sense of it, just imagine the closest thing to church music playing over images of an extraordinarily sweet and beautiful young black couple walking down New York City streets so lovely even the trash in the gutters is sanctified.

The opening shot is a gorgeous overhead view of that couple at the center of the story, Tisha Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). They’re walking in a dream of young love that glorifies the city and clears away all obstacles, especially other people. (Could there ever have been so few pedestrians on New York City streets in real life without a natural disaster accounting for it?) They’re wearing clothes that are perfectly color-coordinated, each in a combination of blue and intense sun-yellow garments. As they walk under the trees, the yellow of their clothes exactly matches the autumn leaves above them, making them harmonize with nature.

If you’re into that kind of thing, you can go right on tracing the progress of blue and yellow in terms of how their young love is faring — have the colors faded, for example? Yes, flashing forward in time to the next scene, we find Fonny in jail, looking wraithlike in a washed-out blue prison uniform, and Tish is visiting him in pale yellow, mourning the trauma of having to see a loved one “through glass.”

That line of voice-over comes from Tish’s narration in the book, one of many chapter-and-verse quotes in the film. But at the same time, many of the edgier aspects of the book have been airbrushed out. For example, Fonny is an aspiring young sculptor, and when he becomes romantically serious about Tish, he gives her mother a small sculpture. In the book, it’s the sculpture of a man carved out of black wood — the figure has one hand to his forehead, and one hand covering his genitals, and “the motion of the figure was torment.” In the film, it’s a blonde-wood abstract sculpture.

In the book, there’s a harrowing visit by Tish and Fonny, who grew up together, to the revivalist church of Fonny’s mother. It’s described in terms of the children’s terror watching dressed-up members of the congregation shriek and “fall out” enacting their possession by God’s power. In another childhood scene, Tish and Fonny are little kids in a bathtub together, described by Tish in terms of their symbiotic closeness, so that they had no sexual sense of each other’s naked bodies at that time, though each had “played doctor” with other children as a means of sexual exploration. She then traces the later teenage development of their sexual awareness of each other’s bodies.

In the film, we see them in the bathtub together, getting washed by Tish’s mother. But it’s a bubble bath, and they’re both dressed in tank tops and underwear, which is bizarre — further startling evidence of what a fucked-up culture we have, in which even very small children can’t be shown naked in a bath.

Throughout the adaptation, Jenkins has tried to smooth away certain aspects of Baldwin’s work that he assumes audiences can’t handle. He keeps the emphasis on a paean to the black family rallying to support the young couple through her pregnancy and his imprisonment, which is the result of a false rape charge engineered by a vengeful white cop (Ed Skrein). The bad apples of the family are expelled early on: Fonny’s fanatically religious, status-conscious mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and prim, heartless sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne), who seem to represent in strident terms James Baldwin’s well-known rejection of his roots and early profession as a preacher in the black church.

We see the rest of the family take on the whole corrupt, racist system arrayed against them. The two fathers of the young people (played exuberantly by Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) join forces to raise money for legal fees by any means necessary. (“You know a few hustles, I know a few hustles….”) Tisha’s bracing sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) lines up a lawyer (Finn Wittrock), just “a white boy” but “not so full of shit while he’s hungry than he will be when he’s full.” Most heroically, her mother (Regina King) takes on a kind of Mission: Impossible journey to Puerto Rico to track down and persuade the traumatized rape victim (Emily Rios) to retract her coerced identification of Fonny as the perpetrator.

At that point, the family’s pulling-together unity was so heartwarming and looked so pretty, I thought, is Jenkins actually going to do a bold rewrite of the book and create a kind of Hollywood happy ending for Tish and Fonny? Something about the lavish and affirming quality of the film’s shooting style seemed to suggest that, in spite of the terrible odds against them, there would be a miracle for this family.

And my best guess is, that’s the effect Jenkins wants to have. The sanitized lushness of the form that makes even the dead leaves look artfully designed and carefully arranged on the streets, has long been associated with the Hollywood aesthetic. It creates a painful contradiction when we don’t get the ending the production design seemed to promise us.

The distracting dazzlement of Jenkins’ formal choices has to be reckoned with. Obviously he could’ve shot this film quite differently. He could’ve gone with a period-1970s film style, borrowing from something like that deliberately degraded look of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, released in 1974, in which New York City is a crumbling post-industrial hellhole and everyone’s got the flu, and people wear shades of crappy brown, and the only cheerful color is the glaring yellow of taxicabs and Walter Matthau’s polyester ties.

Or he could have decided to evoke the unsparing, semi-documentary look of the black-and-white 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, about another black family in America struggling mightily against a white supremacist system bent on their destruction. Some of those 1950s-1960s black-and-white social dramas will murder your insides just from the look of them alone.

But If Beale Street Could Talk, at the greatest extremes of its color scheme, seems inspired by a look I can only call “Sirkian,” because I’ve spent too many years studying film. As soon as I saw those color-coordinated outfits matching the autumn leaves, I thought, “That’s Sirk yellow!” and “He’s pulling a Sirk, by God,” thinking of the awesome use of fall colors early in All That Heaven Allows.

Sirk’s 1950s melodramas were initially received as big-budget soap opera, popular but despised by critics. In the 1970s, the critical reassessment began that established Sirk as a genius at dramatizing social trauma through his handling of mise-en-scene. Production design elements like the posh furniture of upper-class houses became luxurious traps for the oppressed women caught inside them, and repressed family angst showed itself in fancy decorative screens blocking characters from each other, and pools of chilly blue light.

But Sirk favored intense yellow for some of his most disturbing effects. In Written on the Wind, for example, the tormented alcoholic son of a Texas oil baron drives his shocking yellow convertible to the family mansion to kill his best friend, the working-class hero he suspects of having an affair with his wife. Out-of-control yellow is the troubled scion’s signature color in the film, vying with the paler aspirational blue of his hopes for reform through love. And you guessed it, combine those colors and you get the terrible sickly green we wind up with when everything inevitably goes wrong.

The more pertinent use of bright yellow is to be found in Sirk’s last American film, Imitation of Life. Like most directors working in melodrama, for decades he’d been dealing with themes of class and gender oppression. With this last film he took on race in America. Central to the film is the story of a light-skinned black girl named Sarah Jane who can pass for white, raised by her black mother in the household of a white actress. She puts on an intense yellow dress in the scene when she mocks her own “black underling” status in the house by serving hors d’oeuvres to the white guests with the tray balanced on her head, saying in a broad stereotypical slave dialect, “Ain’t no trouble to tote, Miz Lora!”

Then she runs off to meet her white boyfriend, with whom she hopes to escape town and her life as a black woman. He’s discovered her actual racial background, and brutally beats and rejects her. It’s a distractingly lovely scene in which something horrible is happening, the prettiest back-alley in the world, with certain shots in window-pane reflections so we can admire the fancy compositions.

You could put Sarah Jane in her yellow dress in that opening scene of If Beale Street Could Talk, and she’d exactly match Tish and Fonny and the autumn leaves.

The beautiful artifice of Sirk’s hermetically sealed world that could pass in the 1950s for standard big-budget studio system excesses has revealed over time a carefully designed tragic irony in operation. The ugliness of the social systems under examination are in tense counterpoint with the distractingly lovely, color-coordinated surfaces of that world.

And that’s my best shot at accounting for Barry Jenkins’ pretty film adaptation. Because “pretty” is probably the last word you’d use to describe the James Baldwin novel.