“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
– Tish Rogers
James Baldwin’s collection of writing remains one of the most illustrative and illuminating from 20th century America. His style, equal parts poetic and bitterly honest, lends itself to being both universally relatable while giving a revealing snapshot of what it was like to be an African American under the systemic oppression that pervaded society. These characteristics are what makes adaptations of Baldwin’s work so relevant and worthy of adaptation today, as America continues to confront its past and present injustices.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a tremendous achievement for director Barry Jenkins and is a more-than-worthy way to honor Baldwin’s great novel and the characters within. Led and narrated with perfection by KiKi Layne as Tish Rivers, along with Stephan James as her fiancé, an unjustly imprisoned Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, Beale Street gives a powerful, multi-dimensional perspective of what love means, and how strong these bonds can be even in the most dire of circumstances. Their love is felt so strongly throughout the film that it is relatable to anyone who has supported a close family member or friend through a troubled part of their life. But it is also not really that relatable, and is instead a learning experience for those who do not have to deal with the same barriers that Tish, Fonny, and countless others like them did and continue to face today.
The romantic relationship at the center of the film was preceded by a lifelong friendship between Tish and Fonny, and the strength of this connection is obvious from the first scene, where Tish is forced to tell Fonny on the telephone between soundproof glass that she is pregnant with his child. The couple resides in 1970s Harlem. Racism and oppression affect their daily existence. Their families are not wealthy. The systems are all set up to ensure Fonny does not get out from a false accusation of rape. Yet the closeness of these two families leads to an all-consuming dedication to getting this man free.
The pacing of the film allows for the camera to linger on the expressions, sometimes contemplative, sometimes changing, sometimes stoic, that really give the characters emotional depth. You can feel every wave of hope, fear, or strength as Tish navigates a surprise pregnancy and a fiancé unjustly behind bars. You can feel everything that Fonny is experiencing within the prison solely through the addition of different scrapes and bruises every time Tish comes to visit. And you can feel the grit and desperation, caused by years of oppression, behind the lovers’ fathers as they decide to go back to hustling in order to raise money for their children.
Flashbacks are a central storytelling element, and they are used more effectively than I’ve seen in a film for years. Just as Tish wants to reach through the glass and help the helpless Fonny, so is the audience left to watch Tish and Fonny’s life bloom and progress to the inevitable point we know is waiting for them. Jenkins has no need to show the exact circumstances around the arrest itself because that is not what matters. The system is set up to harm the good guys of this story, as Fonny’s friend Daniel (played by Brian Tyree Henry) experienced himself before Fonny’s arrest, and as too many have before and after.
While Tish and Fonny’s love story carries the entire film, Jenkins deftly weaves characters in and out of the periphery who leave their impression on the couple and the film. Tish’s mother, sister, and father (Regina King, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo respectively) all give unique sides of how family members work through the difficulties that life forces on them. Emily Rios’ powerful portrayal of Victoria Rogers, the woman who was pressured to accuse Fonny before going back to her home in Puerto Rico, is only a few minutes long. Tish’s mother, who spent money and time that the family can’t afford tracking her down, enters the scene angry, and justifiably so, that her grandbaby’s father is in prison because of this woman’s accusation. But in those minutes, Rogers is clearly show to be a victim herself, one who is traumatized, afraid for her life, and struggling to maintain her sanity. The film gives time for Mrs. Rivers, and the audience, to process how one incident can destroy so many lives.
The one group of characters whose presence I am still trying to work through is the women of Fonny’s family: his matriarchal, hyper-religious mother Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), and sisters Adrienne and Sheila (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne). Frank is clearly abusive towards his wife, and their daughters are caught in a terribly conflicted position, but none of the three are given any sympathy or depth. At the end of their raucous scene, they are kicked out of the home and the Rivers family gets the last laugh. But why is there no consideration for how the abuse, both experienced and witnessed, and from inside and outside of the household, has affected those two girls and their mother? Are we supposed to see a connection between the judgmental, unfairly punitive justice system and the religious system followed by Mrs. Hunt?
Jenkins does not stray too far from the novel, but he does give the film adaptation a less ambiguous ending. Optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, a position that Tish held throughout the story, wins out in Jenkins retelling. But the scars remain, and the difficult circumstances of the outside world are still there too. Can pure love between two individuals help fix the ills of this world, or even help protect each other? That is one of the many questions that I was left to ponder after seeing this beautiful film.
If Beale Street Could Talk will inevitably be lumped together with other movies that broached similar topics last year. The comparisons are somewhat apt, but Jenkins and the cast and crew do some things so differently that it truly stands out on its own. BlackKklansman took the societal comparisons to today’s world to the extreme (as Spike Lee does so well). The Green Book gives White audience members more White good guys to focus on without being forced as much to contemplate their role in the injustice. Beale Street does not give White audiences any savior character who comes in and frees Fonny from prison, or supports the families financially. The Black characters have no time to be heroes and make everyone realize how terrible their society is. The beauty of this movie is that it does not focus on archetypal heroes and villains, but instead honestly shows life and love for the mess that they so often are.