When it comes to cinema —and with mainstream films, in particular, Black women aren’t often the narrators of their own stories. In those rare cases when we are the main subjects in narratives about Black love or the Black experience, we are gagged and bound —relegated to filler material, helpmate roles or figures who solely exist for the male gaze. James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk refuses to place this injustice on Black women and with his film adaptation of the stunning work, director Barry Jenkins quiets other voices so that the Black female voice can soar.
If Beale Street Can Talk is love ablaze. The narrative follows 19-year-old Tish Rivers (portrayed by Kiki Layne), and her childhood best friend turned lover, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (portrayed by Stephan James) who become enchanted in their romance. Tragically, just as they begin to plot for the future, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and thrown into prison. Set in Harlem during the 1970s Jenkins’ film sweeps gently between the past and the present as Tish struggles to press forward seeking to clear Fonny’s name while growing their child in her belly.
Though Fonny is the one who must directly contend with the injustices of the American penile system— it’s Tish and the women around her — her mother Sharon (Regina King) and older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) who feel the gut-wrenching after-effects of his imprisonment. It’s these three women who band together on Fonny’s behalf, enacting a plan of attack to find a lawyer and get his accuser to recant. There is an overarching thread of Black feminism in the film. Though men— namely Fonny and Tish’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach respectively) take action in the background, the women propel things forward in the foreground. It’s Sharon who dries Tish’s eyes as she weeps alone at night and travels to Puerto Rico in search of Fonny’s accuser. It’s Ernestine who uses her connections to secure a lawyer on Fonny’s behalf.
Despite her circumstances, there is a softness to Tish that Black women aren’t often allowed in cinema, especially through the lens of Black men— but perhaps that’s what makes Beale Street so remarkable. As her belly swells and she waits for the bustling A-train uptown each day, Tish daydreams of happier times. She reflects on the moment she realized Fonny was in love with her, and the lusty and lush moment their child was conceived — a jazz-filled evening full of desire, sweat and longing. She clings to the promise of their future together, even though their lives have been horribly derailed.
Though there are obvious and overt moments of racism and injustice, Baldwin –and in turn Jenkins never allows white America’s opinion of Tish or Fonny to seep into the story. Instead, we see the world as Black women experience it. It’s Tish who must deal with Fonny’s mother’s (Aunjanue Ellis) judgments about her pregnancy. Arrogant and cutting, Mrs. Hunt says, “I guess you call your lustful action love, I don’t. I always knew you’d be the destruction of my son.” Without Fonny by her side, Tish must also face the uncertainty of her father’s reaction to her being unwed and with child. Thankfully, she is never made to feel shame for her situation. Through Baldwin’s words and Jenkins’ images, the audience is also privy to the dangers and misogynoir Black women face each day. More than once, Tish is forced to deal with unwanted sexual advances from men. There are even cruel remarks from other women —namely Fonny’s sisters who think she’s “low class.”
We often see Fonny through Tish’s gaze, and as a result, he is fully human. He’s allowed to be angry, frustrated and even afraid — but he’s also empowered. The night their child is conceived, Tish is sexually harassed in a grocery store, and Fonny comes to her defense —only to have a police officer call him “boy” and attempt to charge him for assault and battery. Enraged by the incident, Fonny demands that Tish never try to protect him, burdened with the idea of what it means to be a man, and moreso, a Black man in a racist country. “Don’t ever think that I don’t know that you love me!” he demands, adrenaline coursing through him. Despite Tish’s pleading, he never backs down to the racist police officer (Ed Skrein). It’s a decision for which the white police officer will make him, and everyone who loves him, pay.
Throughout Beale Street, Fonny’s reverence for Tish is breathtaking. Completely enchanted by her presence– her crystal clear dark brown skin and fluffy fro, she’s desired, adored and loved. In the film’s opening sequence, Tish questions Fonny about the change in their relationship. He responds confidently and with a kiss saying, “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life.” Fonny carries the weight of the world on his back, but he never burdens Tish with the things that ail him. He leans on her for support and love, but he doesn’t shatter her spirit or ask that she navigate his traumas. In one scene, while seated behind a piece of glass — a tattered phone to his ear, he shouts at Tish out of frustration only to apologize just as quickly. She responds, “I understand what you’re going through because I’m with you.” America might have Black men by the balls, but it has Black women by their necks.
Though Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) — the rape survivor, isn’t simply a footnote in the film. It’s Tish’s older sister, Ernestine who first acknowledges Victoria’s suffering. Over lunch, one day, Tish, pregnant and exhausted asks her big sister if she thinks Vitoria was actually raped. Ernestine responds firmly, “I actually do think she was raped.” As much as Victoria’s false accusations against Fonny have torn apart their family, and as much as she loves her sister, Ernestine does not hesitate to stand with her fellow woman. It’s a battle that Black women continue to fight — to align oneself with race or sex.
Some of the most searing moments in Beale Street are scenes between women, and one of the most heartbreaking in the entire film is Sharon’s (King) confrontation with Victoria. Set on a cobblestone side street somewhere in Puerto Rico, the women weep and plead with one another as the pain of millions of women through time and space ricochet across the alleyway until they bubble up in Victoria’s throat causing her to scream out in agony. It is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in cinema this year — one woman asking another to bottle up her truth and store it away in the darkness.
In Beale Street, it’s clear that cycles that they say we create are hardly escapable. Plea deals, domestic violence, and broken homes all exist here, but so does love and hope. Harlem is gritty and worn, but it’s also sun-soaked and welcoming like Brian Tyree Henry’s Daniel Carty — a gregarious old friend of Fonny’s who fresh out of prison, is greeted warmly on Lenox Ave by an old friend, and later treated to a home cooked meal by Tish’s hand.
There’s no fairytale ending for Fonny or Tish — the path that their lives take is a sheer result of outside forces. And yet, in spite of everything, Baldwin — and in turn, Jenkins, refuses to leave the young couple bowed and broken. Instead, he takes Baldwin’s words and transports them through a gorgeous work of cinema told through the Black female perspective that will intoxicate you and enrage you all at once. Pain lives in If Beale Street Can Talk, but love, joy, and the will to move onward sparkle in the midst of it – refusing to be extinguished.
If Beale Street Could Talk will begin a limited release on December 14, 2018, before expanding everywhere on December 25.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide