If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins; based on If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Producer: Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner
by Jon Cvack
It was 2016’s I Am Not Your Negro that brought James Baldwin to my attention, leading me to go down a few YouTube K-holes and discover a fascinating set of sound bites and interviews with the man. To find an author that’s able to communicate their grander vision and philosophy have lately been some of my favorite discoveries; Albert Camus, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace are some of the first that come to mind. James Baldwin is now another.
Barry Jenkins embodies the spirit of why certain stories should be told from a black perspective. It wasn’t just a perfect pairing of a James Baldwin novel and director, but a way in which Jenkins photographed and directed the characters. Each person feels like a complete and full human being, in a world that I think we rarely see. Like any great filmmaker, Jenkins has been able to show me a side of life and cinema that I’ve yet to see before. Combined with Baldwin’s book is an adaptation I’m confident is every bit as engaging as the book.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens with a long jib shot, featuring a couple, Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), walking along a bridge in autumn New York; the fall leaves popping off the screen and matching their yellow and blue clothing. The scene is heavily sentimental, as though you're watching a musical and waiting for the first song and dance number. The pair hold hands and then kiss and we soon discover that this was the moment which would lead to conception. Tish and Alonzo will later be pregnant, and not too long after, Fonny will be rounded up in a spurious rape charge by a cop he once pissed off.
The film is non-linear, leaving you to piece together where the story is in the timeline, making Jenkin’s transition out of the mawkish first thirty minutes all the more impressive. To be honest, I found myself almost getting bored - and I believe that was the point, as the story wasn’t all that unique. Instead of the squabbles we typically see about victims of injustice, Tish and Fonny came from relatively loving environments; a racist system keeping them from the middle class, though both homes are close to the front of the lines. It seemed like the point was to show the connection between all of humankind; that in-laws fail to get along, that bad things happen to good people, and that love of family is often the most important thing.
Things warm up when the two families meet to learn of the pregnancy, as Ronny’s Christian mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), fails to hold back her disdain for the Rivers; in which a scene appearing to continue the intro’s lightheartedness quickly descends into assault, as Tish’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) smacks Mrs. Hunt across the mouth as she continues to castigate the Rivers, while her daughters operate as the chorus. It’s the type of intense scene I’ve seen in other books from the period; in which instead of some grand set piece, it’s about grand emotion amongst significant differences. What Steinbeck explored in From East to Eden or Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet; two young people in love and the foil of their families.
Tish’s mom, Sharon (Regina King), provides the most powerful intro as she accepts the reality of the situation while preserving the family’s honor; showing early on just how far she’s willing to go. Equally formidable is Tish’s father Joseph (Colman Domingo), who again plays with the viewer’s expectations. Expecting a Troy Maxson, we discover that the father, while concerned, is proud of his daughter for making up her own mind, and willing to do whatever it takes to help the baby.
Tish works during the day at a perfume counter, providing a brilliant and heartbreaking scene where Tish breaks down how each type of customer chooses to smell the perfume, in which most older white men force her to spray herself, grab her hand, and smell her wrist for just a bit too long, and she knows there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s a power dynamic I’ve rarely seen; in which exerting power is symbolized down to the very point of the marketplace.
Fonny works as a wood sculptor in a grimy basement, creating beautiful works of art. While the two search for an apartment, and face endless discrimination, they finally secure a place from a young Jewish man who simply wants to rent to people who truly love one another; providing the film’s most melodramatic scene that I suspect works better in the book.
Later, Tish and Fonny get groceries and Tish is harassed by a middle aged white man, leading Fonny to toss him out of the store and attract the attention of Police Officer Bell (Ed Skrein; who played Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones [you have to look this up if you don’t remember/don’t know who I’m talking about as it’s quite an amazing transformation]). Bell ignores the man and instead accosts Fonny, going so far as to nearly arrest him, saved at the last minute by the bodega owner.
While never proven, the episode leads to the arrest of Fonny, as Officer Bell convinced a local Puerto Rican woman Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) to accuse Fonny of a violent rape charge and get him arrested. Victoria has gone missing and after paying a lawyer who hires a private detective - depleting the Rivers’ of their entire life savings - Tish’s mom Sharon heads to Puerto Rico to try and convince Victoria to return and tell the truth; discovering Victoria has had a complete mental breakdown since the attack and will never return to the states.
With no options left, Fonny is forced to take a plea deal while Victoria has the child at home, with the help mother acting as midwife, as without specifying, it’s clear that there’s just no money left for a hospital. Years later, Tish and their child continue to visit. They still love each other, and while there’s a hint of hope come the conclusion, the complete inequity remains; as much as they might one day crawl out of the injustice, the fact they had to be there at all is the true tragedy.
I’m not sure where I read or heard it, but someone mentioned that James Baldwin’s greatest skill was combining politics within an accessible story. As mentioned before, for the Italian neorealist film Bitter Rice (1949), filmmaker Giuseppe De Santis deliberately chose to combine a melodramatic story with a socialist philosophy in order to provide an accessible story that could enlighten the audience. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins achieve the same, providing a vivid and finely detailed story that most viewers could relate to while placing it within a strongly political context. I think most viewers would find little separating their own families from the Rivers (or possibly the Hunts), and it’s that relation and empathy which empowers the story’s meaning. If love is universal and we can all agree on its beauty, then we all must do all we can to eradicate hate, and focus on the individual persons rather than overall people. One day hopefully we can all agree that in this story, Mrs. Hunt and Officer Belle are the only two deplorable characters in the entire story.
BELOW: Thoughts on race in America from Mr. James Baldwin
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