The budding love story of Tish and Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk is grappled from the root and robbed of its growth when Fonny is racially targeted for a crime he did not commit, representing mass incarceration for thousands of Black men falsely accused.
Director Barry Jenkins felt the need to retell the timeless story by James Baldwin because of how easy it fits in the climate of present day subjects and discussions. “We think we’ve progressed, but then we see the same things happen today and see this story is still relevant,” says Jenkins in an interview with CBS This Morning.
In the book, Policing the Black Man, Angela Davis writes, “The number of black males behind bars is now more than 600,000, a proportionally far greater increase than that of the overall black male population since 1954… and, as a result of the compounding effect of mass incarceration on African American communities, these developments hold substantial potential to become part of the life experiences of the generation of black boys growing up today as well.”
This serves as an example of both past and present, having no resolution but showing dismissal towards an opportunity to change — proving that history repeating itself is more or less an excuse.
In plight of the film, art is imitating life. Tish (KiKi Layne) retells her and Fonny’s (Stephan James) story from present to past and back again, in an early scene where photographs taken from the archives of the Civil Rights era emerge and fade on the screen to depict how a Black person was seen and treated in the 1970’s and still, even today.
Jenkins selected composer Nicholas Britell to create the soundtrack after working with him on Moonlight in 2016. “I think there’s always this question of ‘Do you want to hear what you’re seeing?’” Britell says in an NPR interview.
Indeed, when listening to the score in tow with the film, one can hear measures of the compositions reiterated yet somehow fitting into the new interpretation reflecting its progression. The characters’ essence does not change because when similar emotions are re-cued they are put in a position to feel like it’s the first time again.
“Eros,” and “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” are just two songs from the score accompanying joyous and disheartening moments, deceit, rejection, and love, all while staying on a subtle plane of volume — slowly rising from beneath the troubles of the characters, surrounding them in this enraptured feeling, causing cyclic emotions with warm melancholic strings that tug close to the heart.
The audience is faced with each silent moment of nary dialogue or spoken word as the score plays in the background, filling space while watching nothing unfold quickly, feeling a change at each moment. “As it seems, methodically spaced,” Jenkins states, “No scenes were rushed to help bring the audience back to their own similar experiences.”
Their sadness grows and morphs into an adaption of grief with every situation, following like a shadow. It is love in translation through work — embracing fear and contempt, anger, confusion, desperation, madness, and acceptance in the end. It matures. It is repeated for memory’s sake.
Hayley Harris enjoys writing from experience and immersion — and anything which gives her a feeling. She is a freelance writer located on the east coast.