IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
I’ve been thinking about one thing since I saw the amazing film If Beale Street Could Talk at the weekend:
How do we figure out the difference between what we want, and what we need?
If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the novel by James Baldwin, walks a fine line, in a very fine way: Barry Jenkins’ movie is gorgeous and painful at the same time. For me, it’s one of the most honest films about love and connection, a lament for unjust suffering, an honoring of a story deeply familiar for many, and a challenge to self-reflection to the rest of us. What does this movie love? It loves people, it seeks a better world, it loves James Baldwin, it loves love, and it loves its audience enough to not give us what we want, in place of what we need.
What I mean by that is that it pulls off something daring: it makes you fall in love with characters whose lives get harder as the narrative progresses, and its ending doesn’t give us the release we hope for. The simple action of cutting back and forth in time between scenes of early love and romance with “current” monumental challenges doesn’t just give the audience something more to chew on, but makes Beale Street feel more like real life. Think about it: our highest mountaintop experiences are often mingled with sadness (for instance about who isn’t there to share them) and the mundane (did I leave the car unlocked?); and our most tragic or difficult moments are rarely without interruptions that deflate some of the tragedy (laughter at a funeral, bills to pay, life must go on).
In that sense, If Beale Street Could Talk is a gift to those of us trying to make sense of life in times that seem so unstable. It’s a reminder that the times they were always unstable, and the times they were always changing, and the times they were always the same. What’s being offered us right now in these days that seem so uncertain, is the opportunity to stand still, breathe, and hold our nerve. The wonderful teacher Edwin Friedman taught that leadership was a matter of co-creating spaces in which your followers could be become emotionally and spiritually mature: more whole people. He titled his great book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. What he was saying is a variation on the idea that life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. If Beale Street Could Talk tells its story both ways, and the deep focus on the lives of its two main characters suggests depths rare in movies; the context of their lives, and how the audience resonates with (or resists) their struggle, is nothing less than a question of what we are doing with our own. Maybe to put it more simply: we did not ask to be put on earth in this moment, but it is the moment we have, so let’s breathe into it, and ask not what the moment should do for us, but what we can do with the moment.
I want to encourage everyone to consider seeing If Beale Street Could Talk, and afterwards, honor the story that refuses easy resolution by taking another step on the road to lives lived not for immediate gratification, but for the common good.