If Beale Street Could Talk
Love survives hardships in top film from 2018
By Darleen Ortega | 2/6/2019, 6 a.m.
Based on the novel by James Baldwin, the prophet of modern African American thought and literature, "If Beale Street Could Talk" (number 2 on my list of the best films of 2018) opens with this quote from Baldwin:
"Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the back neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy."
The great writer-director Barry Jenkins (whom Hollywood appallingly recognized with only an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, but not for best director and not for the picture itself) adapted Baldwin's novel before receiving permission from Baldwin's estate to film it. And though there is no record of a Beale Street in New Orleans, what Baldwin created and Jenkins has brought to the screen pulses with the urgency of imparting what is true about the lived experience of American blacks. Beale Street is the back street--"Backatown," as they would say in New Orleans--where blacks are born and are generally forced to live, save for those few who become useful to white supremacy in some way. Baldwin sought to express what would be heard about black experience if anyone would listen, and Jenkins' film evokes that intention with sound, images and care that will break your heart if you let it.
And a broken heart is the only appropriate response to this story of two young people, Fonny and Tish, who have only love to sustain them through unspeakable hardships that are thrust upon them, as they are upon black people in America to this day. Their love is what grounds the story because it is so clearly what enables the young lovers to withstand, without entirely breaking, the blows that would and do break many others--the daily indignities, the violations of their bodies, the constant messages that, as Tish explains, black people receive from childhood--"that they weren't worth shit--and everything around them proved it."
The love story of Fonny and Tish (a luminous Stephan James and Kiki Layne) works in another important way: it helps us to grieve as we should for their stolen potential. From the very beginning, the film cuts back and forth between achingly beautiful scenes of a love built on friendship forged as children, and Tish's visits to the jail where Fonny is awaiting trial for a brutal rape that he did not commit. It lingers over their early and sweet longing, the tenderness of recognition that they belong to each other, the grasping for hope and for dreams of a future beyond what the culture has imagined for them. The ways they reach for one another are imbued with an appropriate sense of reverence; somehow these two have discovered and reflect back to each other what so many black young people have been deprived of seeing: their inherent beauty and worth.
There is nobody better than Jensen and his cinematographer James Laxton to impart that reverence on screen. They know how to linger on the beauty of black skin and Afro-textured hair and black bodies--indeed, Jenkins has spoken about the adaptation required to do this justice given that film was originally created to represent white skin, which leaves black skin underexposed. (I think there's a metaphor here somewhere.) Here, black is beautiful, and bright colors and long close-ups help us to see what is most deeply and genuinely true rather than literal. It's the truth we haven't learned to see.
It's only in that context of love and genuine beauty that we can be expected to grapple as we should with the violence that is perpetrated on Tish and Fonny, and on black people in general. In keeping with Baldwin's intention, the film feels like a series of overheard conversations, what black people would (and indeed, sometimes do) say outside the hearing of white people if they could articulate their innermost thoughts. We see how white men feel entitled to Tish's body, how Fonny endangers himself by standing up for her, how his wounded dignity reacts when she stands up for him, how she is so often the only person in a position to receive his understandable rage and pain. We watch Fonny learn to dream and find a way to express his heart, only to watch (as Tish does) as the light and hope drain out of him in jail. We see Tish struggle with the weight of each burden she must bear alone--telling Fonny through glass that she is carrying his child, breaking each bit of bad news about his prospects, absorbing the senselessness of a case in which her own testimony is useless against that of a white police officer with an axe to grind. In a pivotal scene, Fonny and an old friend (an amazing Brian Tyree Henry), recently released from prison for a crime he did not commit, speak of the indignities that each finds impossible to escape; they wear the costs on their souls and on their faces for a few moments of nearly unbearable honesty, before returning to laughter and gratitude for Tish's simple and good cooking.
We also overhear the courage and raw power it takes for Tish and Fonny and those who love them to keep fighting. "Unbow your head, sister," Tish's elder sister firmly chides her in an early scene--and before long, of necessity, Tish acquires the power to insist that Fonny's lawyer refer to him by his nickname rather than by Alonzo, the legal name that is always used in official proceedings, and also the power to pull Fonny back from the brink of despair by reminding him that "I understand what you're going through, because I'm with you." Even as he is dwindling away behind bars, we watch Fonny dredge his depths for hope; "I want to hold you in my arms, and I got to hold our baby in my arms." Tish's father Joseph reminds Fonny's father Frank, also at the brink of despair, that, even without resources, they have already managed the impossible in their lives, so they will find ways to get the money to fund Fonny's defense; I sadly expect that few white people will know how to process the truth of Joseph's recognition that the wealth of white people is almost entirely stolen. And Regina King as Tish's steely mother knows suffering and offers only and entirely what she knows she has to give, advising Tish in a moment of anguish, "Remember, love is what brought you here. And if you've trusted love this far, don't panic now. Trust it all the way."
Yet even that much love and that much power can't save Fonny from the fate reserved for him. Another of the film's agonies is how marginalized people are pitted against each other; an affectionate rapport with a Mexican restaurant owner is contrasted with the anguish of the rape victim, a Puerto Rican woman who was instructed by police to identify Fonny in the line-up and then is left to her trauma. The entrenched patterns of senseless brutality feel and are intractable.
In this story, love manages to survive, but it can hardly be said to thrive. It does not cushion Fonny and Tish and those who love them, and their love should not lull us into believing that their losses are uniquely unjust. In this wrenching and beautiful depiction, we are meant to listen, to grieve as we ought, and to aspire to the determination that has been modeled for us, the quality of determination that will be needed to end such suffering.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.