When I think back on Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk (which is screening tonight at the New York Film Fest) I think of surfaces, tactile places, alongside colors. A starched yellow print. Red paint peeking between cement grain. An umbrella glittering in a golden Harlem storm. At one point our leading couple in love, Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) play-act out the rearranging of furniture in their new apartment and Jenkins' succeeds like that - we feel the weight, the shape of magic, invented out of nowhere. Dreams as heavy as convection ovens, as thin as air, as fragile as our ability to keep our focus in a world unfriendly with disruption.
Fonny loves Tish and Tish loves Fonny and if only that was enough. It's enough for life, for literal actual life inside a woman's belly, but not for living. We know it's not enough from the film's opening scenes, structured around two families clashing with hilarious verve (a special shout-out to Regina King, who gives one of her typically gloriously on-point performances as Tish's extra-loving mother)... and then it's suddenly not, hilarious anyway - an echo and a hard slap of what will come as reality, an octopus of ill intent, squirms in the door and refuses to go, refuses to pick up its coat of many tendrils and get the fuck out of Dodge. Bad omens, baby, bad omens. They're knocking on the door frame, ceiling fans.
The love story between Fonny and Tish is simple, straightforward, rendered with indisputable purity of heart - we have no doubt from the opening chord, from one eye meeting another, that this is true romance, long and true; cutting out all the other sounds of city life uptown becomes a warm hum of romance. Like a needle dropping on a soft jazz thrum, whenever they have each other everything else drops away, shifts into slow-motion. It's honey-smooth loveliness in cinematic form - a caress across the back of your neck, the imperfections of skin on skin only further electrifying the touch.
But yes, the world. James Baldwin was hardly gonna let the hard bitch world off the hook and Barry Jenkins follows in his place - the world snakes in tidal-like, dark water suffocating the small smoky rooms. Swim, no rage against the torrents, but all goodness is usually, it's like a rule, swept up in other people's bullshit. A tragedy of pick-axes, hollowing out that womb of comfort and stability, putting up something obscene and concrete in its place. You''ll end up with scratched knuckles and nothing to show for it.