Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the book of the same title by James Baldwin, is how it uses the turmoil in the lives of one couple as a vehicle to illuminate so many issues. The initial conflict of the film is that the main character, Tish, has to figure out how to tell her and her lover’s family that she is pregnant with his child.
This may seem like a relatively normal situation, but the complication comes as we learn that her boyfriend, Fonny, is in jail awaiting trial for a rape case. Fonny is behind bars largely because a racist cop has it out for him, but the whole justice system contributes to the issue and ensures that he cannot be free.
The movie highlights how expensive it is to have a family member on trial, and the strain it can put on their loved ones. Obviously, there’s no way Fonny’s loved ones are going to go down without a fight, even a fight which leads some of them far away from home, and others to crime. The idea that hard-working people are driven to crime and forced to risk imprisonment to pay for proper legal services in this country is absolutely ridiculous and immoral.
The movie highlights how expensive it is to have a family member on trial, and the strain it can put on their loved ones.
Another issue at play is the prominence of certain characters’ fragile masculinities, and how they intermingle with racial tensions. The two fathers are so macho that they show hardly any grief at the situation, and one instead lashes out at his wife. Fonny becomes enraged when he feels that Tish protected him from a white cop, and takes it out on her, even though he knows he cannot fight off black oppression single-handedly.
Fonny’s friend Daniel Carty visits Fonny in New York to relax and have a few beers, and he eventually brings the conversation around to why he’s disappeared for the last two years. He tells as casually as he can about how he was pulled off the street for suspicion of grand theft auto. At the time he had weed on him, which made it easy to coerce him into confessing to the robbery, as going down for possession would mean an even worse sentence.
Daniel is loud and funny, but we see that shell start to crumble as he goes into what his prison sentence did to him. He feels completely powerless and has come to believe that, based on what he’s seen and experienced in jail, the white man is not a man, but the devil.
His confession of trauma is one of the most powerful moments of the film. It reaches beyond Daniel’s personal experience and gives the audience a picture of what Fonny is going through in jail, even though staying strong means he’ll never be able to tell Tish what it’s like on the other side of the glass.
This scene is one of a few that bring fire to the film. When Tish’s mother, Sharon, meets with the rape victim, it brings up the question of how the family can believe that both Fonny and this woman are telling the truth. Regina King’s portrayal of the mother is restrained and realistic as she grapples with how she can persuade the victim to support Fonny and go back on her testimony, without triggering her trauma or denying her truth. The clash of the two families, Fonny’s and Tish’s, is another very memorable moment.
If Beale Street Could Talk finds its strength in these intense and topical scenes, often led by supporting characters. The problem is that these parts of the movie sometimes outshine the main love story. Although Barry Jenkins’ super intimate directing style makes for some unique moments of romance between Tish and Fonny, the drag of their love scenes seems to be at odds with the pacing of much of the movie.
The microcosms of the black experience that leap forth in many of the scenes outside their relationship can draw the mind away from the color-coordinated and innocent love story. Despite this inconsistency, the evocative direction and nuanced performances of the supporting cast make the movie a success. If Beale Street Could Talk is extremely touching and leaves the audience with piles of heavy content to ruminate on and contemplate. It’s themes of race, justice, and gender are as glaring and relevant today as they were in the 1970s.