An Interview With James Laxton, the Cinematographer of “If Beale Street Could Talk”
A host of difficulties befall a young black couple in love in the new movie adaptation of James Baldwin’s famous novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) must wrestle with an unexpected pregnancy, as well as family disapproval, housing discrimination, and even false imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. One might think that such a film would warrant a gloomy cinematic look, presenting the world as a cold and foreboding place, yet director Barry Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton don’t see it that way.
Instead, most of If Beale Street Could Talk is photographed with a warm and idyllic glow as it echoes the ideals of Tish, the narrator of the story.
In the opening scene, Tish and Fonny walk through a New York City park in the 1970s and the world seems to slow down for them. It’s a perfect fall day, saturated with warm autumnal colors, and the two leads are well-dressed in fashionable period clothing that makes them look all the more attractive. They gaze at each other and the camera takes each of their POV’s, putting us right there in the scene with them, helping us see and feel exactly what they are experiencing. It’s an audacious approach, a million miles from objective, but Jenkins and Laxton want us to feel these characters and how they experience each other and their surroundings.
Laxton explains, “Here, we’re making choices by the characters’ perspective. That’s how we really get inside the story. We tend to make choices from there, less so from the narrative.” Indeed, his camera rarely frames the story in a distant, objective fashion. His frame becomes almost a fly on the wall, close-up and intimate in its regard of what both the couple is experiencing. It’s the same style that served Jenkins and Laxton so well in Moonlight, 2016’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture. There too, Laxton’s camera stayed exceedingly close to all the action, and in particular, the faces of the story’s main characters. It’s become somewhat of a signature for both Laxton and Jenkins.
On their methodology, Laxton said, “We tend to make films in a fever dream of sorts. If Beale Street Could Talk has an emotional sensibility that has to do with our main character Tish’s perspective as a character. The way that she feels about Fonny as a character has a lot to do with how we want to view Fonny with our camera, with our lighting, and with our color, and all kind of things. So, through her emotions her perspective is hopefully how we understand her love for Fonny. We use extreme close-ups of Fonny’s eyes, his lips on the trains, or the light that plays across Fonny’s body in the scene where they’re being intimate. This is how Tish feels about that character, not just us depicting a realism or realistic portrayal of that, but much more so the character’s perspective of her love and affection for this man.”
Tish’ POV was there in Baldwin’s original prose too, as it’s a first-person narrative. Jenkins’ adapted screenplay wisely keeps lots of her words direct from the novel in her voice-over throughout the film. Together, with Laxton’s camera, these two devices help form the memory play that is Tish’s and she tells about all the hardships she and Fonny face, and yet through her upbeat voice and the film’s lovely visuals, her hope stays alive.
Tish’s story is also her memories of the events. That’s why the autumnal day appears picture postcard perfect, and the first time they make love, the light bathes their nude bodies in warm gold tones. Laxton’s camera serves to enhance the memories she’s relating to us, just as the warm nostalgia in her mind colors them too. “We’ve all been there, the first time we’re intimate with someone…being ourselves with someone, being vulnerable around that person. When that happens, time does slow down, you’re in a little capsule that you feel very safe with that person, enough to bring you to a state where time almost doesn’t exist anymore.”
That’s not to say that every shot is from Tish’s POV, nor are they all idealized. During a get-together with the couple’s families to share the news of the pregnancy, Fonny’s mother reacts negatively and starts hurling insults at Tish. As tempers flare, Laxton’s camera keeps close to the participants. It circles around the family members and, together with edits by the team of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, builds tension that is equal to most thrillers. Then, as cooler heads finally prevail, Laxton ensures that the warmth of the family’s home emerges from the background. His camera frames full bodies within the context of that cozy living room, helping underline the importance of their togetherness.
Other scenes, such as those where Tish visits Fonny in prison, are cast in more somber hues of green and gray, giving off an unhealthy feel. Indeed, he is suffering in prison and we can see the toll on his beleaguered face. Yet even in these scenes, the warmth of Tish’s love breaks through. Again, Laxton shows us her through Fonny’s POV and just how gazing at her kind and open face helps him relax, smile and find some hope too.
“Barry and I are both filmmakers that take location and react to it,” explains Laxton. “We find a space that works for us creatively and we work within that. Environment means a great deal. Here we have New York, specifically Harlem, and the era so we made choices from the very beginning based on that, as the novel, and space and time. Those two things, we react to those and make choices within that context. The period had a lot to do with lens choices and color palate.”
Laxton has proven a strong range of work already in his young career, everything from showcasing Justin Long’s metamorphosis into a walrus in Kevin Smith’s horror-comedy Tusk, to Kristen Stewart’s gutsy turn as a conflicted soldier in Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray. And now with his third feature with Jenkins, he’s reaping more plaudits and Oscar talk. They both won a slew of prizes for Moonlight and it looks like If Beale Street Could Talk is starting to figure strongly in the mix for the upcoming Oscars.
The movie has been heralded by critics, currently holding a 95% score at RottenTomatoes.com, and it is breaking through with audiences too. Laxton is buoyed by that suggesting that it’s proof that people will take their time with a story that takes its time despite the fast-breaking world all around them. “We do exist in a world today that moves very quickly with social media, traveling,” he elaborates. “I’d like to think that audiences are looking forward to digesting stories, performance, and media a little slower, taking their time to enjoy something more.”
Indeed, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that takes its time, allowing for character and story to play out and be truly affecting. Baldwin had a lot to say, as does Jenkins film, illuminating issues of discrimination and injustice, in addition to the ideas of love and hope conquering them. “In all our lives, we share in the good and the bad,” says Laxton. “And we all have to wake up the next day and be willing to fall in love, to continue to love our families, in the midst of the conflict…that is hope.”
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