Just as the novel version of If Beale Street Could Talk moves between love story and protest novel, a balance Baldwin strikes throughout many of his works, Jenkins' adaptation uses flashbacks to oscillate between two worlds: a world before Fonny's arrest, and a world after. And while the black portraiture of the mid-19th century regaled itself in fanciful attire reserved for the wealthy, Jenkins's cinematic portraits are decorated with light and color.
In the world pre-dating Fonny's arrest, the sun is always setting in pink hues, which are indiscriminately cast across Tish's and Fonny's faces in moments of triumphant joy. At the conclusion of a long apartment search rife with racist refusals, light pours through the life-sized window of what would've been Tish and Fonny's first home, shrouding the couple to create glowing silhouettes. From there, flashbacks capture Tish jumping into Fonny's arms, celebrating through the street. And right as you think they might fade into the next storyline, their faces linger, begging you to watch the corners of Tish's and Fonny's mouth stretch into a hopeful smile, and their eyes crease with affection. In each moment, Tish or Fonny's faces bleed to the screen's edge and arrest the audience with their stare, telling you "it's a miracle to realize that somebody loves you," forcing you to feel what it's like to sit in black love's gaze and let the world slow down around you.
But the world of Tish and Fonny's past bears a deep contrast to their present, which is stifled by Fonny's ongoing legal proceedings. In this world, Jenkins' portraits are a far cry from two hopeful lovers locking eyes beneath Harlem sunsets. They are portraits of a white police officer, standing against a brick wall as Tish narrates how he falsely claimed to witness Fonny leaving the crime scene. In a shot of the officer, he clenches his teeth until the jaw line reveals small creases, staring perniciously but unable to maintain eye contact, aware of the life he's locked away.