One of the rarest things to see in American cinema is naturalistic or lyrical depictions of black middle class life. While we have images of poverty, slavery and squalor at one end of the spectrum, and visions of gangsta mobility at the other end, the idea of a black middle class subject has proved peculiarly difficult for Hollywood to process and visualise. Of course, that’s because middle class life is framed as a white achievement – the ultimate white achievement – within American culture at large, meaning that there’s something inherently improbable about the idea of black middle class culture that tends to relegate depictions of it to a more comic or picaresque mode. For that reason, the American sitcom, from The Cosbys to Blackish, is where middle class black life has tended to flourish, leaving representations few and far between when it comes to the big screen. In some ways, the traumas posed by artists like Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar revolve more around the inherent impossibility of the black middle class subject than the working-class gangsta aspiration of an earlier generation of rappers – or at least remind us that these situations are two sides of the same coin, and that gangsta is itself a testament to the impossibility of the black middle class subject as a viable form of identity formation, even post-Civil Rights.
As a rare example of the black middle class film, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk seems immediately prescient of the structural impossibility of the black middle class subjects it is articulating, but equally prescient of the need to try and give these subjects voice and purpose. In some ways, the very fact of a black middle class film made for a black audiences speaks to a deeper displacement of blackness from American power than a film about slavery or poverty ever could, since the end product is inevitably fractured, uncanny and atemporal in its reach and diction. Since depictions of middle class life are nearly always bound up with white temporalities of mobility, success and security – the steps along the way to social contentment and utility – presenting these images within a black lexicon undoes the sense of regulated time that they impart to both cinema and society in tandem. To make a black middle class film, Jenkins seems to suggest, is to distort the temporality of film itself, if only by exposing how indebted it is to white middle class conceptions of pacing, timing, and appropriate allocations of beats and pauses.
Like Moonlight, If Beale Street takes place largely within this dissonant space, cementing Jenkins as a descendant of both Charles Burnett and Marlon Riggs, as he articulates “the possibility and the impossibility, the absolute necessity” of articulating the atemporality of black middle class existence, producing a film that feels equally designed for audiences in the present, and audiences in the time period that it depicts. That time period is the early 1970s, where Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) embark upon a love affair in their late teens, until Clementine becomes pregnant and marriage becomes necessary. While there is initially some tension between their parents, the relationship proceeds more or less smoothly, until Fonny is accused of rape by a confused witness and a corrupt policeman, and sentenced to imprisonment with no proper legal procedure. While the two families’ efforts to exonerate Fonny are technically the motor engine of the plot, most of the film is drawn from the communion between Tish and Fonny, which from the very outset burns with a deep yearning for the future that is inextricable from its romanticism, along with a pervasive sense of displacement that is both intensified, and salved, when they are embracing in their own private moments and spaces.
As with Moonlight, this romantic space splits the difference between introspection and proprioception, suggesting that our bodies can be defined in two distinct ways. First, and most obviously, our bodies can be defined as physical objects that exist discretely in time and space. However Jenkins is more interested in a second conception of our bodies, as proprioceptive ambiences, insisting that it is the spaces around our bodies which is – somewhat paradoxically – where our deepest desires are deflected, and where our real level of freedom is most accurately calibrated. Once again, Jenkins excels in capturing the ways black subjects are forced into a kind of clenched physiology and phenomenology, and are rarely able to fully expand their bodies into the proprioceptive spaces around them, as much as they might – technically – seem to be guaranteed freedom of passage in certain scenarios. Once again, too, it feels as if the black queer body is the degree zero of this clenched physiology – not as directly in Moonlight, since there are no openly queer characters here, but in Baldwin’s taste for the way in which black bodies curl and curve in upon themselves, generating the heightened and embodied sense of space that comes when you are rarely, if ever, simply given room to breathe and expand as your entire self.
That inchoate yearning for proprioceptive communion is embodied – literally – in Lonny’s sculptures, which typically feature body-like gestures and movements emerging from slabs of pure stone, as if envisaging a freedom of black corporeality that can’t even be properly conceptualized or visualised at this moment of time. More generally, Jenkins assists his characters by expanding the conversational ambience within and between them, via the jazz substrate that is always playing somewhere in the background, typically at the very threshold of audibility. It quickly becomes clear that the spaces between words here are as important as the spaces between notes in jazz, since both provide black subjects with a way to breathe, expand and claim the space around their bodies as their own, if only by performatively translating the compressions and contortions that typically contour their bodies into the dense improvisational flourishes that make these silences ramify to begin with. As a result, whole scenes linger in the deepest pools of solitude and introspection that can be found within jazz, while the conversations often recall jazz improvisations in their thirst for those aporia where black life can proprioceptively expand, push back and flourish.
While the film may be entirely set in New York – with a brief excursus in Puerto Rico – Beale Street thus feels figuratively central, since as the origin of jazz it shapes the conditions of possibility that surround each character’s body. In Jenkins’ hands, and in Baldwin’s hands, jazz becomes a way of testifying to the structural impossibility of the black voice, and the black middle class voice in particular – a peformative muteness that admits that Beale Street can’t talk within discourse as it is currently understood by American society, but that its absences can also be mobilised in the name of a future that doesn’t yet exist. As a result, much of the film plays out on a physiological as much as a psychological level, as Jenkins beautifully captures the haptics of privilege, and the differences in body language, bearing and posture exhibited by those people – always white – who are treated with dignity, respect and equality. You might say the film is therefore about the postural precarity of blackness, but also the way that postural precarity is mobilised for jazz, and in some sense already always is jazz in spirit and purpose. Even or especially at their most debilitated, the characters here all seem to be searching for the deepest jazz groove – like John Coltrane before a solo, or Ella Fitzgerald before a scat – as jazz, in turn, expands out beyond its time period into the most far-reaching and expansive form of an Afrofuturism that is still far beyond the present, or at least hasn’t been fully satisfied or acknowledged by the present.
For that reason, If Beale Street Could Talk often plays as a call to the future as much as a flashback to the past, displacing the present even as it clarifies that the stability of the present, and the clear allocation of past and future, is the key temporal aim of white middle-class narratives in cinema and literature, most of which explicitly fetishize the “moment” as their locus of subjectivity and individuality. Suspended in that embodied atemporality that for both Baldwin and Jenkins is inherently black, the film doesn’t need to “establish” racial injustice, or even narrativise it in any emphatic way. The legal injustice against Lonny is dealt with cursorily, during a brief photomontage sequence, providing just enough to jump to the next stage in his interactions with Tish, rather than finding it necessary to explain why or how this injustice operates. The assumption, instead, is that black audiences will know and feel the film’s subject matter in their bodies, and even more so in the spaces around their bodies, and will be as disinterested as the film itself in the regular narratives of racial injustice that are typically aimed at ameliorating or “educating” white audiences. Throughout the film, experiences of white culture are typically framed as producing a kind of post-traumatic shock, especially when white culture appropriates even those experiences as its own, further displacing and unsettling the temporality of black life.
Even the plan to release Fonny from prison, which never really works, refuses to play into the “seriousness” of white films about black suffering, slipping into a picaresque mode that acknowledges that this plan is never going to succeed, and that the white savior who would typically step in at this point is nothing more than a grotesque fantasy, even or especially if that white savior is the “understanding” gaze of a white viewer. By the end, one of the most striking aspects of Jenkins’ film is thus its disinterested in presenting racism as something exceptional, notable or even worthy of that much exposition. In other words, racism here is unworthy of narrative as it is understood in American cinema, and even compromised by narrative, since narrative cuts against the emotional exhaustion and resilience that comprises so much of the black experience presented here, which depends absolutely on racism being taken absolutely for granted. In the closing few scenes, I found myself thinking of Green Book, whose immaculately crafted narrative and seamless command of tonality feels like a form of white privilege in and of itself when set against the proprioceptive yearnings of both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, let alone the oeuvre of James Baldwin himself, and his insistence that to be black in America, and “to be relatively conscious” is not to require a narrative, but to instead “be in a rage almost all of the time.”