The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.
Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a powerful reflection of the Black American experience, a love story layered in beautiful colors and poetic language juxtaposed with the slow-burning tragedy of a family’s fate. That James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, which depicts the inherent racism of the criminal justice system, is relevant enough to be adapted into a movie in 2018 says a great deal about America’s progress, or rather lack thereof.
While there have been other recent films and television series that shed light on the predatory ways in which the judicial system baits Black men into taking plea deals, including “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” and “The Central Park Five,” “Beale Street” is one of the few on-screen depictions that centers on the struggles of the women they leave behind. The film follows Tish (KiKi Layne), a 19-year old Harlemite who becomes pregnant, just as her family must band together to prove her partner Fonny’s (Stephan James) innocence of a false rape accusation.
In Jenkins’ film, Tish and Fonny are bound together by not only an unassailable love, but also the harsh realities of being Black in America. Whether it is being denied housing or growing up in the forgotten ghettos of Harlem, there are few parts of Tish and Fonny’s life that are not impacted by racism. Tish’s own gender plays a prominent role as well, as the film shows random men caressing her hand at her job or bombarding her with unwanted sexual advances at the grocery store, all the better to demonstrate the sexual objectification that women are subjected to on a daily basis.
While many Black men and women can surely relate to Tish’s encounters with anti-Black racism and sexism, only Black women intimately understand the exhaustion of constantly battling both. Black women are often forced to reckon with discrimination from those within the marginalized groups they belong to. Bette Midler’s recent declaration of women as “the n-word of the world” and Black men’s refusal to say Korryn Gaines’s name are just a few examples of Black women having to troubleshoot ignorance from people who share parts of their identity, yet relish in the privilege of the parts they don’t.
By using their own social media platforms to push back against white feminism and promote the #SayHerName campaign, Black women have combated the whitewashing and male-centering of social movements they have spent decades building. Despite being made to feel as though they must bifurcate their identity to prove their allegiance to either group, Black women acknowledge they are inextricably linked to both their gender and their race.
Given Tish’s despondent circumstances, it would have been understandable for her to lash out at everyone, especially Victoria (Emily Rios), Fonny’s accuser. Although Victoria’s Puerto Rican heritage cannot be erased, her white-passing appearance must be taken into consideration because of the long, violent history of white women falsely accusing Black men of rape.
Yet, instead, Tish and the other Black women of “Beale Street” show compassion for both victims. When Tish asks her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) if she believes Victoria was raped, she responds, “I actually do think she was raped.” Ernestine does not hesitate to believe Victoria, as she – and many other women – can sympathize with being suspected of lying about sexual assault. However, she still affirms Fonny’s innocence, understanding him not only as a family member she loves, but also as a Black person whose life perpetually hangs in the balance of a racist police state.
Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) is another source of balanced compassion for Fonny and Victoria. When Sharon meets Victoria, she does not belittle or threaten her. On the contrary, she begs Victoria and tries to establish a kinship by referring to her as “daughter.” Still, Sharon remains firm in her support of Fonny, pleading, “I know she was raped, but I also know Fonny didn’t rape her.”
Other films have explored the pressure Black women face in feeling obligated to choose between their gender and their race, especially when the situation pits those parts of their identities against each other. The 2016 political drama “Confirmation” details the 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings amid Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations against Clarence Thomas. With the infamous “high-tech lynching” phrase he used to describe the investigation behind Hill’s allegations, Thomas attempted to render Hill – and millions of other Black women – incapable of speaking out against rape culture due to fear of being labeled a traitor to their race.
Similarly, although highlighting a much less severe product of the patriarchy, DuVernay’s 2014 drama “Selma” reveals the infidelity Coretta Scott King endured to secure her husband’s sense of stability at home, a place of refuge that consistently gave him the emotional relief he needed to lead the civil rights movement. The historical drama showed, yet again, how Black women are gaslighted into believing they must forfeit a part of themselves in order to advocate for another.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” carries the torch in cinema that tells this oft-overlooked narrative while igniting its own path. Unlike the aforementioned works, the film centers the lived experiences of Black women actively fighting against both forms of oppression that their identities render them prey to. “Beale Street” is a testament to Black women being the select few with enough courage and care to denounce racism and sexism in any context, including when it is fueled by people of their own race or gender. Hopefully, in the not-too distant future, films will be able to reflect a world in which Black women can count on people – other than themselves – to do the same.
Annapurna Pictures will releases “If Beale Street Could Talk” theatrically on November 30.