If Beale Street Could Talk is the rarest of fine movies — a moving love story, brilliantly acted, directed and musically scored. And it is political to the core, because it denounces the systemic, unrelieved racism against Black Americans in the USA.
First on the screen are the words of distinguished novelist James Baldwin, author of the book If Beale Street Could Talk:
“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
Disrupted love and life. Told in flashbacks, the film tells the story of Fonny and Tish, played by Stephan James and Kiki Layne, who grew up together in 1970s Harlem, and moved wonderingly into love. In the book, narrator Tish loves Fonny because “he had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do,” wood and stone carving. This “saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. …The kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it.”
But as their love story barely begins, they find themselves thrown up against an entrenched “injustice” system. Fonny is framed for rape by a racist white cop whose so-called “superiority” was challenged in a minor incident with a not-so-deferential Fonny.
Baldwin’s novel and director/writer Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation tell a wrenching story of two young Black lovers with a baby coming, trying to hold onto their hopes, as too few supporters attempt to buck the system and get Fonny out of jail. It is these devoted warriors’ mighty efforts, and what they’re up against, that guide most of the narrative.
The defense team. With Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) leading the way, her sister (Teyonah Parris) and father (Colman Domingo) promise help when they learn of the young couple’s coming baby, and then leap to defend Fonny against the arrest charges. They find a sympathetic white lawyer to represent Fonny. But from the outset, he is out-maneuvered and outnumbered by the racist judicial system.
Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), just out of jail for a crime he also didn’t commit, wants to help. But his tortuous imprisonment has profoundly scared him. And he warns Fonny, “They can do with you whatever they want. Whatever they want.”
Baldwin, never simplistic, made no pretense of mythical family solidarity. At Fonny’s house, there was a lot of fighting. His mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a fundamentalist Christian, disapproves of and dislikes Fonny and his girlfriend’s pregnancy, as do his two sisters. They refuse to help their “disgraced” son and brother get out of jail.
His father (Michael Beach) escapes this mean-spirited trio by taking to the tavern. But in desperation he joins Tish’s family in trying to save his son. He is fired by his boss for stealing things to pay for the legal defense. In the book, he commits suicide in despair, though this is left out of the film.
Tish’s mother Sharon travels to Puerto Rico to find the raped woman, and see if she is willing to withdraw her identification of Fonny. She had pointed to him because he was the only dark Black man in the lineup, as pre-arranged by the police. But as Sharon says, this traumatized Puerto Rican woman is a victim of the system as well. “I had never seen it like that before. I don’t speak no Spanish and they don’t speak no English. But we on the same garbage dump. For the same reason.”
In book’s end, Sharon emboldens her daughter on the brink of giving birth. “We ain’t going to let nobody put chains on that baby.” In contrast, at film’s end, director Jenkins adds a scene with Tish and her 4-year-old son visiting a still-imprisoned Fonny.
A film for our times. James Baldwin was one of the most powerful literary voices in the Civil Rights movement. Today, in times of open white supremacy, his courageous portrayal of collaborative race relations means something, as it does in this film. The Jewish landlord happy to have the young couple rent his space, who offers to hold it until Fonny gets out. The white woman grocer who stands up to the cop who tries to arrest Fonny for slugging a guy assaulting Tish.
Beale Street also replaces the stereotypical explosive Black man in films with the authentic gentleness of Fonny’s love for Tish, and Joe’s love and respect for his wife and daughters. Their voices, in the book and film, fiercely embody the leadership and steadfast resistance of Black women — in the family and in the struggle for freedom.
The movie Beale Street has done justice to Baldwin’s book and to the Black community and its allies against racism.
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