There is a scene in Barry Jenkins film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel by visionary James Baldwin, that details American racism without a word. Tish, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is working behind a perfume counter at a department store. She is visibly pregnant. Her job is not one typically given to ‘Negro’ girls, but this store considers itself progressive, and so she is allowed to offer the newest fragrance by spraying it on the back of the hands of passers by. A white man approaches and wordlessly grabs her hand instead, bringing it to his nose and lips where he sniffs her skin intimately. Tish, portrayed in a luminescent tour de force performance by 19-year-old newcomer Kiki Layne, is visibly uncomfortable but cannot recoil: not only is it her job, but this is early 1970s New York, where the Civil Rights Movement is over yet legalized racism remains right around the corner. Her discomfort is written all over her face, tinged with fear. Silently, he grips her wrist in a display of ownership – mimicking that of slavery, when white people did claim ownership of Black bodies, before releasing her and walking away.
Countering this scene, we see what happens when a ‘Black cat’ approaches. He extends his hand for her to spray, smiling while he breathes in the luxury fragrance. They share a moment of solidarity in the department store where recently they would not have been allowed to enter, let alone exist as patron and seller. As previously, there is an unspoken exchange between them, but this one is not of racist, sexist intimidation and fear; this one instead is of camaraderie and hope. And it is in this very scene where the underlying theme of the film is detailed, which is love. This is a movie about love. The love between Black people; the love between lovers; the love between family and friends; the love between siblings; the love between parents and children. Love as a North Star, a compass on even the darkest nights and through the darkest times. Love as a bond when all other bonds have been broken, and as a driving force pushing you to do whatever it takes to get to truth and justice.
Love against a backdrop of horror and racism and poverty. And in this way, it is also a film about hate.
Tish and her boyfriend, Fonny, are deeply in love, having been best friends since childhood. He is the father of her baby and we witness, through non-linear flashbacks, how they fell in love. Fonny is an artist who creates masterful wooden sculptures, and Tish recalls knowing the moment he loves her: when he presents one of his works to her mother. Jenkins creates a world within a world when they are together meandering the streets of New York City holding hands, and everything from a subway ride to a wall-less apartment seems filled with promise. He broadens the scope of this world with intimate scenes of their family and friends, as well. From when Tish’s mother and father dance in the living room while they think no one is looking, to when her sister pours shots as a salutation for the baby, it’s easy to see why Tish herself is practically a living embodiment of innocent warmth and tenderness. She has been raised in love. While, admittedly, Fonny’s mother and sisters despise Tish as ‘low class’ – providing meaningful subtext to a caste system within Black America where darker skinned, poorer Blacks are considered underlings – his father is supportive, resorting to doing anything and everything to come up with funds to get him out of jail later in the film. We also see an array of friends who support Fonny’s relationship and his artistic endeavors, doing everything from feeding him when he is hungry and penniless to defending him from police.
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They have a network of support around them. But as Black people in a racist world, the love and support they feel is insular, capable of vanishing in an instant. While looking at apartments, they are turned away repeatedly as a couple by white-only landlords who don’t wish to rent to ‘Negroes;’ Fonny is often flat out refused when viewing solo, and when Tish visits apartments alone, she is sexually propositioned by white males to the point where Fonny feels it is no longer safe for her to go. Racist sexual harassment is a reoccurring theme in Tish’s life, and when she is sexually harassed by a white male patron in a grocery store, Fonny intervenes — and is then threatened with arrest by a racist white police officer. Interactions with white people are fraught with tension, and the sense that at any moment, things can go hideously wrong.
The anti-Black racism is also not limited to whites. When Fonny is wrongly accused of rape, it is by a non-Black woman of color: a Latinx Puerto Rican immigrant. While it is determined that she was, in fact, assaulted, the audience knows that it was not done by Fonny – while the rape is taking place, we see him eating dinner with Tish and a close friend, Daniel, played mesmerizingly by Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta. (In the scene, Daniel himself hauntingly recounts how he was falsely arrested by racist police officers and imprisoned for two years for stealing a car, when he didn’t even know how to drive nor have a license.) The rape victim, who did not see her assailant, essentially picks a Black man, Fonny, out of a lineup because she is told to. When Fonny is quickly arrested and jailed, a pregnant Tish and both of their families must scramble to produce funds for legal costs while the case stretches on for days, months, and years. Their love is tested and pushed to the limits.
In an era of #metoo, this is an often-overlooked complication when discussing rape: the history of false rape allegations wherein Black men are accused of raping non-Black women. This has long been used as racist ammunition against Black men, in particular to lynch and otherwise murder and imprison them. The case of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine Black boys falsely accused of raping two White women, helped spur the Civil Rights Movement. And Emmett Till is the most famous case, where the 14-year-old accused of whistling at a white woman was lynched and dragged through the streets until his body was disfigured and unrecognizable. From American Chattel Slavery to the present day, the sexual pathologizing of Black men and women as deviants deserving of jail and murder for their ‘crimes’ remains a serious symptom of the system of racism and white supremacy which still grips this country today. As Dylann Roof’s manifesto before he committed the Charleston massacre stated, “They are raping our women and they have to go.”
And non-Black persons of color, who benefit explicitly from anti-Black racism as they are not Black, are often complicit in this pathology and perpetuate it. The movie does not shy away from this fact. When Regina King, in an Oscar-deserving turn as Tish’s truly devoted mother, travels to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser, a woman named Victoria, she pleads with Victoria’s father and family members that she is sending an innocent man to jail. They are sympathetic to her plight but dismissive, and Victoria’s father in particular mentions her race specifically, stating that she is a Negro woman who traveled all the way for nothing. It is hard to imagine that they would be so uncaring to another non-Black Latinx, especially another Puerto Rican, as they also emphatically place importance on Victoria being ‘home’ amongst her own family, friends, and culture whilst she recovers.
Victoria understandably does not want to relive her plight, as she fled to Puerto Rico after wrongly identifying Fonny to take comfort in the fact that somebody, anybody, was arrested for her assault. She is portrayed empathetically as a disturbed and tortured soul by Emily Rios, a victim and yet also a pawn wielding racial power over our Black protagonists. There is yet another genius scene where Tish and her sister sit in a restaurant discussing the case. They both believe that Victoria was raped — thankfully, no one ever questions her assault, they just wonder by whom — and Tish wonders out loud why Fonny?
Despite the non-linear storytelling/narrative, we witness the sequence of events unfolding so effortlessly it’s as if they were pre-ordained: Fonny and Tish are not only Black, they are also poor, leaving them at the mercy of the for-profit judiciary system (bail, commissary, and legal counsel/lawyers cost money, for starters, as do private investigators, extradition, and trips to Puerto Rico). The police are racist and colluding with a traumatized Victoria against them, as are the judges and the prison guards. Tish’s recounting that Fonny was with her all night is seen as unreliable due to their personal relationship, yet his friend Daniel’s testimony is also deemed inadmissible when his character is called into question because of his previous arrest and sentencing — one we already know to be false. And around and around it goes. People often marvel at Black Americans listing their gripes as if it is impossible that the entire system could be against us, yet through a kaleidoscope of scenes that are true to the unpacking of racist American society, Jenkins illustrates just how much this is true.
And there are so many wonderful, cerebral scenes in this film. It is a love story, yes, but it is also a tragedy, about people who love caught in a tragic situation. And is this not the nature of the human condition? Jenkins creates scenes that make it appear so. His signature shots of characters staring into the screen as if they are looking directly at the audience are as visually stunning here as they were in his Oscar-winning Moonlight, giving the visceral impression that we are glimpsing into private lives. The dialogue is also very good, with era-appropriate slang terminology of Black Americans utilized. And much has been said about the original score, a composition of which has also been superimposed over a visual clip of what has been proclaimed possibly the first Black kiss on film. The music was indeed beautiful, swelling with joy when we see Fonny and Tish together, as a perfect accompaniment to their romance, yet deep and somber as tragedy befalls them.
The film also resists a White Savior Trope, with only three memorable White characters. There is the young lawyer fighting for Fonny, who becomes increasingly frustrated as he realizes the extent of the setup against his client. White people generally live in a world where they believe in fairness, and we watch this ‘White Boy’ — as he is often referred to by Tish’s father — fall into disillusionment about the treatment of his Black clients and himself by association. There is a sympathetic White woman, a storeowner, who vouched for the couple when a racist cop attempts to take them in, seen once and never again. And there’s a young Jewish landlord (played rather charmingly in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Dave Franco), who shrugs when asked why he would rent his loft to a Negro couple, and says, “I guess I’m my mother’s son.” Their behaviors are not treated as grand, sweeping gestures of the ‘good’ Whites, meant to redeem the racist cop who is setting Fonny up or the handsy white men at Tish’s job. Instead they stand out as rare anomalies in a world where the deck is clearly stacked against a couple who are hurting no one, and want to do nothing but love each other.
The ending is bittersweet. Without giving too much away, we see the depth of Tish’s devotion to Fonny, as she laments on how no one should ever have to “…see a person they love through glass.” In a combination of voiceover and real life images, the fates of the Fonny’s, Daniel’s, and other wrongfully imprisoned Black Americans are outlined. They are the victims of a country that labels itself the land of opportunity, yet continues to maintain a racist and unjust legal system against the descendants of American chattel slavery. This has culminated in the use of mass incarceration as not only an enslaved labor force, but as a new version of Jim Crow designed to keep the Black American community perpetually disenfranchised; robbed of not only freedom, but possibly the right to vote, to work and maintain a living, to thrive and survive. Some have found the ending disappointing for a film that bills itself as being about love. But in the face of systemic racial injustice, love isn’t always enough. Let Baldwin’s novel and Jenkins faithful adaptation serve as a reminder that love and hope can only get you but so far. Truth, honor, and a commitment to justice — all of which have been in short supply historically as well as currently in the treatment of Black Americans, Descendants of American Chattel Slavery — are what is necessary to take you the rest of the way.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.