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.
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.”
To read the rest of this review, go to Riot Material Magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/if-beale-street-could-talk-where-love-not-enough/
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