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If Beale Street Could Talk [Movie Review]

If Beale Street Could Talk is a Barry Jenkins film adapted from the James Baldwin book of the same name. Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film tells the story of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), two young adults who are navigating their blossoming love and the society around them. The movie unfolds across two timelines, the first which shows the progression of the young lovers’ relationship and the second which shows their efforts to remain connected and reunite after Fonny is wrongfully arrested and charged with rape.


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Show Notes

Early in the film, Tish visits Fonny in prison and reveals that she is pregnant. Given the uncertainty of Fonny’s future he tones down his excitement and waits for Tish’s confirmation that this is indeed good news. Tish is about three months pregnant and the separate announcements of her pregnancy are used to introduce us to the other major characters of the film. Their initial reactions and the resulting conversations allow us to get a feel for their personalities and much of how they will interact with Tish throughout the film.

You can sense Tish’s nervousness as she sits down to tell her mother, Sharon (Regina King), the news. We don’t actually see Sharon’s reaction but given that she then helps Tish break the news to her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), it’s clear that she’s made her peace with it. This foreshadows the role that Sharon will play throughout the film in always having a kind word for her daughter and providing support and guidance when Tish needs it. Her father is concerned because of Tish’s youth while her sister chimes in with funny somewhat off-color remarks.

The Rivers family is not rich but there’s obviously a lot of love, warmth, and support within their home. It’s evident that Tish has a strong support system and she’s going to need it. The same can’t be said for Fonny’s family, the Hunts.

Fonny’s mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), doesn’t think that Tish is good enough for her son. She seems to be a high saddity bible thumper who along with her two daughters looks down on the Rivers family. This is the only scene in which we actually see Mrs. Hunt and her daughters but they still manage to make quite an impression. Despite being devoutly religious, there’s a definite coldness and lack of compassion within these women. When they enter there is a superficial cordiality that barely masks the tension in the room.

On the other hand, Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), is warm and gregarious and fits right in with the Rivers family as he’s good friends with Joseph. When I first noticed Beach was playing the role of Frank, I automatically assumed that he would be trifling as Beach has a long history of playing such characters. (Ex: Flipping desks in Lean on Me, leaving Bernadine in Waiting to Exhale, and cheating on Teri with Cousin Faye in Soul Food.) And to some degree once again, Beach is not playing a morally upstanding character. But, the difference here is that there is more complexity to Frank as his actions though wrong come from a place of good intentions and he questions his own actions.

Mr. Hunt believes in his son’s innocence and does everything he can to support him, including visiting him in prison and paying for a lawyer. Conversely, Mrs. Hunt doesn’t seem to believe that Fonny is guilty but does view his arrest as a test from God to set him on the right path.

Fonny’s father is excited about the pregnancy and wants to rush out with Joseph for a celebratory drink. His mother meanwhile utters vile words about both Tish and the unborn child due to it’s conception taking place outside of marriage. The scene showing these different personalities all in one room is an exercise in shade and savagery. It’s one of the best, if not the best scene in the whole movie with great acting all around.

Fonny and Tish have known each other since childhood and had been close enough to be given baths together. They maintained their friendship but the relationship didn’t become romantic until they were teens / young adults. Having essentially grown up together, the two are very comfortable with each other. As a result, the progression of their relationship doesn’t include the clichéd posturing and miscommunications that are often found in such stories. Instead, their relationship casts a sense of ease and warmth while drama comes from external forces.

Prior to his arrest, Fonny and Tish intended to get married and had been looking for an apartment. At the start of If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish lives at home with her parents and doesn’t seem to be working while Fonny works as a short order cook and has a basement apartment that allows him to work on his art. They have a hard time finding a place most likely due to the cost of rent but also because of sexism and racism. When Tish goes out to look at apartments some of the realtors / landlords are happy to show her places and encourage her because they think they might have a shot. But, when Fonny accompanies her, suddenly the apartment is no longer available or there’s some other issue.

“The game has been rigged. You take a plea or get buried under the jail for going to trial and making the lawyers and judges do their jobs.” —Tish

The neighborhood is rough and the youth of Fonny’s and Tish’s generation are falling prey to various manners of suffering. In a montage of photos and clips we see urban youth being violently arrested and strung out on drugs. These kids have been told that their lives don’t matter and they won’t amount to much. And unfortunately, with nothing to believe in and no one to believe in them, they internalize that negativity. By the time Fonny reaches 22, he has few childhood friends left.

At one point, Fonny bumps into an old friend, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), which is cause for excitement because so many other acquaintances have lost their lives or otherwise fallen to the wayside. As the two catch up and reminisce, the conversation leads to the experience of being Black in America. They go from laughing and joking to a deep intimate conversation and then back to laughing when they’re reminded that Tish is in the other room. It reminded me of the happy clown, where a person is smiling on the outside while they’re really crying on the inside.

Daniel has been out of jail for three months following a two year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. He had a small amount of weed on him when he was stopped by the police and thought it would be a better option to plead guilty to a different charge. While Daniel doesn’t go into specific details about his personal experience he sounds absolutely traumatized. One can only imagine what he might have seen and had to endure. It’s unsettling that Daniel is actually grateful for “only” serving two years, despite being innocent and really only deserving a slap on the wrist for the weed.

Fonny has two loves in his life, his art and the woman he loves. He speaks about having a desire to leave the country but being afraid of what might happen to him and Tish if they’re separated. He wants to escape the pressures of America but is afraid of losing the thing and person that he loves.

It’s therefore ironic that the very things that Fonny fears come to pass. As If Beale Street Could Talk progresses and Tish visits Fonny multiple times in prison, it becomes more and more apparent that he’s under intense pressure and stress. The details are never actually spelled out but it’s clear that he’s struggling.

Every now and then, there’s a news story about a wrongfully convicted person being exonerated after serving time. We learn about the crime that was committed, where the investigation went wrong, and how an innocent person was convicted. When people are exonerated, they’re often so relieved to be free that they don’t hold grudges and just want to move on and move forward. But, I would liken that willingness to live and let live to someone attempting to choke the life out of you and then being thankful because they failed to kill you. Fortunately, I’ve never had this experience so it’s possible that I don’t understand what it would take mentally to cope with such trauma.

People are imperfect and unfortunately sometimes mistakes occur even in the justice system. But, it’s a completely different story when someone is wrongfully convicted due to manipulated evidence or testimony.

Quite often people are so desperate to be released that they’ll accept plea deals rather than having to continue waiting for trial. Or the risk of going to trial and possibly receiving a lengthy sentence prompts them to just plead guilty. Prosecutors and judges have the leeway to determine the charges to be filed and length of sentences to be handed down. As stated in If Beale Street Could Talk, prosecutors and judges then have the option to retaliate through punitive means when forced to do their jobs and actually participate in a trial.

I can only imagine sitting in jail awaiting trial for a crime you didn’t commit. But to then have insult added to the injury by also having to deal with delays and witnesses leaving town. It’s too much.

Late in Tish’s pregnancy, Fonny’s lawyer shares that the victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), has returned home to Puerto Rico. You would think that in addition to the lack of evidence and the questionable lineup this would have led to a dismissal of charges. But, the cop that wrongfully arrested Fonny is out to get him by any means.

As a result, Sharon is forced to fill-in for Tish and journeys to Puerto Rico to speak with Victoria. There’s an awkwardness and discomfort to these scenes that lends itself to conveying what the characters might be feeling inside. When Sharon and Victoria meet face to face the tension is thick and I felt there was a sense of danger. Sharon is taking a financial risk because neither the Rivers or Mr. Hunt have the disposable finances for this trip. She’s also taking a physical risk because there’s no telling how Victoria’s family might react to her showing up on behalf of the person they believe to be her rapist.

Something that I appreciated about the telling of this story is that it manages to explore Fonny’s innocence while not dismissing the victim’s claim. So often in cases like this those who perceive the accused as being innocent tear down the victim as part of proving his case. It was refreshing that both parties are perceived as being victims worthy of justice. Fonny a victim due to his being falsely accused and the victim by having her harrowing experience be manipulated as part of a petty scheme.

This is the second film created by Barry Jenkins that I’ve seen, the first was Moonlight. While the subject matter of the two films differ, the visuals and use of music seemed similar to me. If Beale Street Could Talk had a neutral color palette that seemed both warm and vibrant. Much of the music consists of instruments only and help to intensify the emotions of scenes without being a distraction. I enjoyed the story of Fonny and Tish but enjoyed the visual and auditory experience as well.

Maybe it’s a matter of the directors I’ve been following most recently but it seems like films about wrongful convictions (fact and fiction) are now everywhere. What sets If Beale Street Could Talk apart is that it doesn’t actually show you what Fonny is experiencing in prison and very little about the legal proceedings. Instead it focuses on how it affects the people who care about him and their various methods for coping with his absence and offering him support.

I watched If Beale Street Could Talk twice and must admit that I didn’t pay nearly enough attention the first time. I missed out on some of the nuances of Fonny’s and Tish’s relationship. During that first viewing, I thought that Fonny and Tish were irresponsible for conceiving a child while they didn’t seem fully capable of providing for themselves. The Rivers didn’t have a lot of money but seem to have been able to reasonably provide for their two daughters and instilled them with good character. With the support of Tish’s family, things will most likely work out ok for their child.

But, I think that my concerns about Fonny and Tish’s ability to provide for this child still holds some merit. I’ve only seen the movie and haven’t read the book but would assume that it also doesn’t contain a family planning moment where Fonny and Tish discuss a way forward. There’s no discussion of what the plan will be beyond Fonny being in prison. I’m going off on a tangent here but I think the goal should be to do better than your parents. Not just to reach the same level or to only provide your children with what your parents provided for you.

Taken for what it is and the topics discussed, I think this is a good movie. But, I would also love to see a film that doesn’t just take the “love will conquer all” path. At some point we have to actually dive into the reality of what this child is in for, the obstacles and lack of opportunities that will result, and what that means for the child in the long term. Granted, that probably wasn’t in the book and would result in a completely different film but it’s a film that I would be interested in seeing.

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