Wednesday, January 30, 2019

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018): Growing Up Black with America’s Penal System

While a story about an innocent couple in love, the story of If Beale Street Could Talk is unremittingly sad.  It’s only uplifting because the viewer comes to sympathize with all of the main characters.

Tish (Kiki Layne), a 19-year-old black adult living in Harlem, falls in love with Fonny (Stephan James), a young black man who will soon face false allegations of raping a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) who immigrated to the United States.  Facing a life sentence, Fonny learns that Tish is carrying his child while he is in prison.

Fonny ultimately never gets to face his accuser.  In fact, the accuser never identifies Fonny as the rapist until coached on how to pick him out in a police lineup.  The two individuals who were with Fonny at the time the rape allegedly went down were Tish and their friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry).  Yet Tish is presumed bias.  And Daniel, with his own criminal record, does not make for a credible witness in the eyes of white authorities.  

While Fonny’s young white lawyer fights for acquittal and while Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), travels to Puerto Rico to speak with the accuser (who has since fled the country), Fonny never receives a fair trial.  No one is successful in getting the accuser to retract her story, and the woman’s disappearance from the country prevents anyone from contradicting her story in court.  Yet despite all obstacles, the couple remain together and never betray each other’s trust.  By the end of the film, some half-a-dozen years later, Fonny is still in prison receiving visits from Tish and their young son (Kaden Byrd).

Trish’s family is incredibly supportive to her throughout this ordeal, despite the fact that she has a child outside of wedlock.  Sharon, in particular, is always as Tish’s side.  But outside of Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), Fonny’s family want nothing more to do with her or the unborn child.  They consider her a seducer and a sinner.  Frank, estranged from his unnamed wife (Aunjanue Ellis) – a religious zealot, and apparently estranged from his daughters as well, works with Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), to raise money for Tish and Fonny.  The two fathers attempt to help in any way they can.

A great portion of the film deals with the rigged system that will not give a young man like Fonny a chance.  It doesn’t matter that Fonny is an intelligent and polite young man.  He’s a sculptor and is fluent in a number of languages.  Even so, the authorities do not judge Fonny by anything other than the color of his skin.  Even without a witness to testify against Fonny, his fate remains in the hands of a racist police officer (Ed Skrein).  Fonny eventually pleads guilty in return for a lesser sentence (though it’s not much of a plea deal considering that Fonny is still in prison several years later).
While mostly applauded by critics, I have mixed feelings about If Beale Street Could Talk.  The acting of Kiki Layne and especially Regina King stands out.  And at no time during the film is the plight of the two main characters treated with anything but sensitivity.  We always find the main characters likeable.  What makes this particularly remarkable is the fact that the viewer never feels manipulated by the storyline or the film direction.  Director Barry Jenkins does not use gimmicks to make the movie feel maudlin.

Yet though the movie is less than two hours (119 minutes to be exact), it feels much longer.  Someone else I know while sharing their view of the movie mentioned how she could not wait for the film to end. She didn’t want to see the two lovers staring at each other through glass window during prison visits anymore.  And indeed, we continue to see that scene over and over again throughout the film.  There is little humor in the film to break up the feeling of oppression.  And though the two characters are still together at the end, they remain separated by prison walls.

James Baldwin wrote the novel If Beale Street Could Talk for which the film’s based.  The film remains loyal to his vision.  Baldwin was a complex man – an incredibly intelligent and gifted black man from a poor Harlem neighborhood.  His father was a minister who happened also to be abusive.  This led to Baldwin turning away from his father’s teachings.  

Baldwin was probably America’s most prominent 20th Century black writer outside of Richard Wright.  Yet ironically, much of his fame came about due to his criticism of Wright in Baldwin’s book of essays, Notes of a Native Son.  Baldwin, who in his youth thought only the highest of Wright, criticized (possibly unjustly) the latter’s novel, Native Son, for featuring a protagonist, Bigger Thomas, who was angry and extremely violent.  Baldwin may not have been able to separate Bigger Thomas from its creator, Richard Wright.  Baldwin obviously was hoping for the creation of more positive black characters.

But while even Richard Wright did not want to see Bigger Thomas emulated, Bigger Thomas was not a passive character.  Comparatively speaking, the characters of Fonny and Tish, for all of their gentleness and virtue, remain passive and practically resigned to their fate.  

I can’t speak to Fonny’s taking a plea in order to gain a shorter sentence.  For all practical reasons, it’s understandable why he did do this.  Also, we have to admire these characters for their perseverance.  But the film and the story ultimately offers no solution.  So despite it being thoughtful and even intelligent film that does not make viewers shed any false tears, it remains an unrelentingly sorrowful movie to watch.

January 30, 2019
© Robert S. Miller 2019