If Beale Street Could Talk: Stillness and Colour as Methods of Storytelling

by Matthew Major

  1. Introduction

In 1974 The novel If Beale Street Could Talk (Beale Street) was released by author James Baldwin. In 2018 Beale Street was adapted as a film, directed by Barry Jenkins. Set in the early seventy’s streets of Harlem, Beale Street tells the story of two lovers, Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt. The relationship is complicated when Fonny is sent to jail for a crime that he didn’t commit, and Tish realizes that she is pregnant. The film illustrates the struggles of lower-class minorities in the 1960’s and 70’s, specifically with law enforcement. Beale Street also makes strides in female representation in black film.

The succeeding essay will be concerned with the technical aspects and political implications of the 2018 film version of Beale Street. By utilizing seemingly every facet of cinema at his disposal Jenkins brings his audience deep into the lives of the characters on screen, thusly involving them in the politics within. In the following essay it will be argued that Jenkins’ use of genre-coded colouring and his slow and deliberate pacing are the most prominent among the tools that he used to such effect.

   2. Genre and Medium as Conscious Choices

From the foundation up Jenkins (and partially James Baldwin) made sure every aspect of Beale Street was appropriate and complementary to the story it tells. This makes for a smooth experience with no unexpected or jarring elements. From the beginning we see that Beale Street is a romantic drama and that it is fiction. This framework helps Jenkins give us such close and personal access to the story in a way that could not happen if the Rivers and Hunt family were real people presented in a documentary. This lends itself to the politics of the film too. The closer the audience feels to the characters, the more impactful it is on the audience when the characters are subject to deeply personal acts of hatred.

The subtle quietness that the movie runs on is also complimented by these choices, the gentle melancholic atmosphere surrounding Beale Street would be near impossible to achieve had it been a romantic comedy or a political crime movie. Again, this bolsters the political message, as discrimination is taken seriously by the film and depicted realistically.

   3. Setting the Mood with Colour

Jenkins’ use of colour correction in Beale Street is cleverly used to set our expectations for scenes on a nearly subconscious level, giving the audience a seemingly innate sense of what to expect at any given point. Beale Street has two different kinds of scenes, both distinctly separated by the colour correction used in them. There are what will be referred to as “orange scenes” and “green scenes”. The orange scenes are generally what one expects to see in a romance film; warm colour palette and high contrast. In a Taiwanese study on colour use in different genres of film we see these exact stats recorded for romance movies; high contrast with lots of reds and yellows (Chen 45, 46). The green scenes however, display stats that more closely relate to those of a horror movie in this study. With colder colours (dominantly green) and lower contrast than the orange scenes. These green scenes have an unsettling feeling compared to the rest of the movie. This horror aesthetic is used only in scenes that directly deal with political topics; when Tish’s mother confronts Fonny’s accuser in Puerto Rico, when Office Bell first confronts Fonny, and all of the prison scenes except for the final one. The Orange scenes are every scene that isn’t green. Some of the most important examples of orange scenes are when Tish and Fonny first realize that they are in love, and the final scene, which takes place in prison but finishes the film on a hopeful note for Fonny and Tish.

In the Taiwanese study a custom software was used to measure brightness, contrast, saturation, reds, yellows, greens, and blues. These orange and green scenes adhere to all the stats measured in the Taiwanese study, except for brightness. In the study, it is shown that, on average, romance movies have the second highest brightness out of all the inspected genres, while horror has the lowest (Chen 45). In Beale Street these the brightness is flipped, most of the orange scenes are very moody and dimly lit, while the green scenes are more brightly and unnaturally lit. Jenkins creates a visual language with the consistency of these two distinct types of scenes. The warm dim light of the sex scene makes the eerie green glow of the lights in the grocery store scene seem blindingly bright and lifelessly cold.

Outside of postproduction colour correction Jenkins still sneaks some metaphorical colours into select scenes. When Tish announces that she is pregnant her parents invite Fonny’s family over to celebrate. Fonny’s mother disapproves of the news and begins ranting about how Tish’s child is a sin. This is an orange scene, but behind the couch that Fonny’s mother and sisters sit on are deep green curtains, foreshadowing their negativity in what is an otherwise orange scene. We see the opposite of this in the scenes where Tish visits Fonny in prison, these scenes are green, but the wall that Fonny sits in front of is bright yellow. When Tish and her mother meet with Fonny’s lawyer there are lots of mixed emotions; frustration, exhaustion, but a bit of hope and progress. This blend of emotion is reflected in the colours, which are more neutral than other scenes, and with lighting elements of both orange and green scenes. The opening scene of the film is a sunny outdoor orange scene, with Tish and Fonny walking together. Fonny wears a blue jacket with a yellow shirt, while Tish wears a yellow jacket with a blue shirt. Through overt use of colour, even without any dialogue, we instantly recognise these two as lovers.

   4. Pacing and realism as political components

Beale Street could be described as dramatic, engaging, and emotional, but one thing it isn’t is exciting. Not to say this is a negative point though, Beale Street’s patience and maturity allows it to tackle the tough politics it intends to address in a respectful way. The camera movements are slow and gentle, if not still, and a distinct lack of establishing shots makes the film less cinematic and more realistic. This slow quietness is utilized to make romantic scenes passionate and emotional, but it is also used in some green scenes to great effect as well. In the first shot of Officer Bell he stands alone in front of a green tinted brick wall, then slowly looks directly into the camera. Similarly, when Tish is selling perfume, she narrates as an old white man silently approaches her and grabs her hand to sniff the perfume, during this sequence there is a similar shot of the man looking directly into the camera. Jenkins makes us look into the predatory eyes of these oppressive figures with the uncanny stillness of these shots to make the viewer feel the same discomfort that Tish (or any of the other black characters) would feel.

In comparison to other black cinema like Boyz N the Hood (Boyz), Beale Street has a much more mature depiction of black women. Women in black film were often represented as single mothers, or sexualized objects of desire “[performing] a very different function to the politically conscious or violent (young) man that we see in these films” (Horrex 10). The women of Beale Street have significantly more agency than the sidelined female characters in Boyz.

Fonny’s Mother could be viewed as a manifestation of these old misogynistic portrayals of women. She fulfills the “angry black woman” stereotype, similar to Doughboy’s spiteful mother in Boyz (Horrex 35). Tish and her mother and sister call Fonny’s mother out on her behaviour, which could be seen as an attack on the misogynistic and shallow portrayal of women in early 90’s black cinema. From that point on the only black women in the film are Tish, her sister, and her mother, who are each respectful representations of black women. The mature tone set by the pacing and cinematography of Beale Street allows Jenkins to openly discuss issues like feminism in black culture in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative like other major Hollywood films that claim to have similar intent.

   5. Conclusion

Through Beale Street,Jenkins demonstrates a clear understanding of not only how to effectively set an atmosphere through film, but also how to utilize this atmosphere to his advantage. The tone of Beale Street is set by Jenkins’ clever use of colour and pacing, he then uses this tone to discuss race and class issues with his audience. Not only does Beale Street cover bigger picture concepts, it also touches on meta issues that lie within black media itself. Beale Street sets an example for film at large of the abolishment of misrepresentation and demonstration of intelligent use of visual storytelling.

6. Works cited

Horrex, Emma “(Re)Visiting Black Women and Girls in the Cinematic Hood “Who You Callin’ a Hoe?”.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2017.

Chen, I-Ping “Characteristic Color Use in Different Film Genres.” Empirical Studies of the Arts, vol. 30, no. 1, 2012, pp.39-57

Singleton, John, Director. Boyz N the Hood. Columbia Pictures, 1991.