In the opening scene of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Tish and Fonny, young lovers played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, take a walk amid the verdant splendor of a New York City park in the early 1970s, the green and gold of the foliage playing off the vivid blues and yellows of their clothes.
Throughout the film, which arrives in theaters this month, director Barry Jenkins accentuates the physical beauty of the characters and their environments, enrobing Layne in soft pastels that provide delicious contrast to the brown hues of her skin, filming her courtship with Fonny in ways that enhance the insistent romanticism that underlines the film even at its most wrenching.
Like Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2017, “If Beale Street Could Talk” portrays the inequality, discrimination and violence that has historically conditioned black existence in America — in this case, a false accusation of rape that sends Fonny to prison — but never at the expense of the resilience, mutual care and celebratory joy that also define that existence. Recalling “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” the collaboration of poet Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava, “If Beale Street Could Talk” doesn’t ignore black pain. But nor does it reduce black life only to pain: Instead, the film is suffused with gorgeous color, striking composition, and grace notes of tenderness, sensuality and lyricism.
As he did in “Moonlight,” Jenkins wields beauty “almost as a weapon” in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the director noted on a recent trip to Washington. In both films, luxuriant visuals were meant to function “as an extension or reflection of the consciousness of the main character,” he observed. Tish’s memories of her blossoming relationship with Fonny serve as a means of psychic self-care in the face of trauma. “She’s remembering these things in such a lush, visceral way to make sure she always preserves that feeling,” Jenkins explained. For Tish, defining her life in terms of sweetness, not just suffering, is a crucial form of resistance.
As a canvas for extraordinarily rich, detailed images of black beauty, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (based on the James Baldwin novel) is of a piece with a number of films released in 2018 that, taken together, are changing notions of mainstream cinematic language and classicism. In “Black Panther,” director Ryan Coogler — working with cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter — created a world bursting with colors, textures and visual elements rooted in myriad African traditions and cultures, from the cowrie shells and beadwork adorning the film’s lavish costumes to the female characters’ natural hair (“There was not a pressing comb or relaxer on set,” reported makeup artist Camille Friend, who headed the film’s hair department). In “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee paid loving homage to the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s during a sequence set at a speech by activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), panning across a gallery of exquisitely styled Afros and young, somberly stunning young black faces in an exhilarating visual echo of Ture’s call to self-belief and autonomy.
Add “Widows” — in which director Steve McQueen films Viola Davis by accentuating the handsome contrast between her dark skin and the crisp white clothing and furnishings her character favors — and the cumulative effect is not just enormously pleasing, but deeply political. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation,” narrative cinematic grammar was literally invented with images of the denigration of black bodies, and during the era of celluloid, its photochemical elements were ill equipped to pick up the tonal nuances of nonwhite skin. Now, that same medium is in the throes of a 21st-century reconstruction, from the narratives and characters being foregrounded to fundamental notions of aesthetic excellence, beauty and pleasure.
As an image-maker, Jenkins has been at the center of that movement, if not necessarily intentionally. In 2008, he made his first feature, “Medicine for Melancholy,” a winsome bagatelle starring Wyatt Cenac as a San Francisco hipster who embarks on a fleeting romance when a one-night-stand turns into a 24-hour walk-and-talkathon. Shot by Jenkins’s film school classmate James Laxton (who also shot “Moonlight” and “Beale Street”), the film had a soft, desaturated look that echoed Jenkins’s theme of color and its importance, but also put the film squarely in the tradition of the footloose French films and American indies that influenced him as a student.
All of Jenkins’s films have been shot digitally; on “Moonlight” and “Beale Street,” he and Laxton worked with colorist Alex Bickel to achieve the precise look they desired in terms of contrast, temperature, saturation and texture. In the case of “Moonlight,” that meant bright turquoises and greens, blue-black skin tones and tropical Florida light that captured the “beautiful nightmare” playwright Tarell McCraney had in mind when he wrote the original story. In “Beale Street” that means ’70s-era colors and grain structure that make much of the film feel as if it’s been captured on Kodachrome film stock.
Jenkins insists that the strong visual imprints of his films stem from his own insecurities. “When I first started film school . . . I didn’t even know how to expose film,” he said. “And because of that, my images would arrive [from the lab], and they weren’t beautiful. Even if you could apply a mathematic principle to aesthetics, they just weren’t good. The foundation wasn’t there. So I always had this complex about having the ability to create beautiful images.” He admits to occasionally worrying whether the visual allure of his movies is a form of overcompensation. But he and Laxton are careful to justify their visual schemes and avoid pretty-for-pretty’s sake. “We’re not forcing an aesthetic on the films,” he said. “The films, and more importantly the characters, are dictating what the aesthetic needs to be.”
Still, even Jenkins admits being struck by the emotional power of what he creates on audiences. Although he insists that he doesn’t approach aesthetics “as a political act, or as a cultural statement,” the director recalled a screening of “If Beale Street Could Talk” in Paris, when a group of women told him how much it meant to them to see characters like them depicted in everyday life, blown up to monumental scale on screen. “It reminded them of themselves, of their families, of their friends,” Jenkins said, adding that even if he doesn’t have a political agenda with his movies, “it would be false of me to deny that I do recognize and understand that, in the images being presented the way they are, there’s something political in it.”
This year has been notably inclusive when it comes to the sensibilities and protagonists carrying the biggest movies: Witness the blockbuster success of the romcom “Crazy Rich Asians” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” about a domestic servant in Mexico. But “If Beale Street Could Talk” and its cohorts represent a distinctive strain of filmmaking that’s of a piece with historical black aesthetic movements, wherein artists pushed against Eurocentric notions of virtuosity, refinement and sophistication by creating those images within their own communities.
DeCarava — whose work served as an inspiration for Jenkins and Laxton on “Beale Street” — was one such artist, as were photographers James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks and Kwame Braithwaite. There’s a similarly vibrant and self-sufficient cinematic tradition, which extends from the work of such early pioneers as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams to the L.A. Rebellion, the blaxploitation era and 1990s romcoms. (That tradition, most Americans just learned, goes as far back as the 19th century: On Wednesday, the Library of Congress named “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” a 29-second film that might be the first representation of African American intimacy on screen, to its National Film Registry.)
But with the rise of Jenkins, Coogler and McQueen — as well as Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Andrew Dosunmu, Justin Simien, Kahlil Joseph and veterans Spike Lee and Gina Prince-Bythewood — images that have been deeply affirming and restorative for the black community are now reaching critical mass within the mainstream. In that process, reflexive beliefs about what’s desirable, inviting and just plain fabulous to look at are being destabilized and expanded.
We now live in a time when a Ruth Carter dashiki is every bit as dazzling as an Edith Head gown from Hollywood’s Golden Age; when Dosunmu’s collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young can credibly be compared with Orson Welles and Gregg Toland; when the magnificent close-ups of KiKi Layne and Stephan James that close “If Beale Street Could Talk” convey iconographic potency on a par with anything by Eisenstein or Bergman.
Jenkins credits digital technology — its accessibility, as well as color-correction methods that allow for more subtlety in capturing skin tones — for what amounts to a generational shift, not just in production, but collective perception. “What you are starting to see is that these tools that were for so long outside the black community and outside communities of color, now we have them,” he said. “And we’re doing with them what we damn please.”
In movies, as in any public discourse, when you change what’s centered, the center itself shifts: What feels revolutionary today will become, in time, the readily accepted standard. If black aesthetic traditions were once accommodated by American cinema merely on the margins, if at all, now they’re poised to permanently transform the medium, as well as what spectators expect and accept from it.
This isn’t the new normal as much as long-awaited relief from an old and obsolete abnormal, when Hollywood’s un-prettiest lies convinced audiences that romance, aspirational glamour and escapism could occupy only a suffocatingly narrow channel. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ve long needed more expansive qualifications for both. Finally, we’re getting them.