by Noemi Arellano-Summer
photography courtesy of Thuy-An Nguyen
The following review contains spoilers for If Beale St. Could Talk.
If Beale St. Could Talk, directed by Barry Jenkins, is a 2018 film based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. The story, set in 1970s Harlem, follows a young woman named Tish (Kiki Layne) as she fights to free her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) from jail for a crime he did not commit. The film shares the story non-linearly, as we are treated to an out-of-order sequence of Tish and Fonny’s courtship alongside Tish and her family’s efforts to free Fonny.
A film made and released in modern day has seen more history than the original novel. Therefore, Jenkins made the decision to incorporate the future of Black interactions with the law and police brutality into this film, set nearly a decade after the Civil Rights Movement.
The main plot of If Beale St. Could Talk concerns Fonny’s alleged crime of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Tish knows her fiancé would never commit such a gruesome act, and she also knows that Fonny couldn’t have possibly traveled to the crime scene before the time of the crime, and so she believes him to be innocent.
However, the decision of Fonny’s criminality eventually comes down to gender and race: he is jailed essentially because he is male and Black. Mrs. Rogers’ Puerto Rican heritage is presumably not given the same weight in the courts because she was married to a white man. Ultimately, Tish and her family’s efforts to help Fonny are in vain because his race and gender work against him.
Unfortunately, this set of circumstances is still true today. In this film, Tish’s position as the protagonist causes her fight to ensure Fonny is released takes on a quest-like feel, and the viewer instantly understands her to be in the right. In addition to Tish’s testimony of Fonny’s innocence, Jenkins also leads us to care about this young man by showing Fonny’s loving relationship with Tish.
The despair that tinges the entire film feels eerily reminiscent to 2018’s The Hate U Give, which revolves around a Black teenage boy being shot by a white police officer, with the protagonist as the only witness to the crime. The characters of both films realize that the world is unfair, and they have to fight back against the system any way that they can in order to achieve their goals.
During Tish and Fonny’s courtship, Tish is accosted by a man in a local grocery. A nearby white police officer involves himself and says he will be keeping an eye on Fonny. This is the only scene where Fonny and Tish interact with the police outside of jail, and Jenkins imbues the scene with now-familiar elements in regards to hostile white police officers interacting with Black men. It’s a consistent theme for much of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, and seeing it from Tish’s eyes instead of Fonny’s gives the scene the sense of terror it deserves. Tish can do nothing in Fonny’s defense, lest she get them both into more trouble, and can only look on in horror. In that sense, this film could have been set practically any time between 1930 and now, and it would still ring just as true.
Therefore, Jenkins deepens the history and the future of Black interactions with the law and police brutality through his consistently bittersweet film. Seeing the action from Tish and her family’s point of view allows the audience to fully experience the depth of grief and anger that is watching a loved one be wrongly jailed. Like many young Black men in America’s past, present, and future, Fonny’s race and gender work against him in the court system and in interactions with white police officers.
Both Baldwin and Jenkins understand the injustice of the experience; they fictionalize it so it is palatable to a wider audience. They fictionalize it so these experiences can be discussed and the outcomes can be changed, and so wives and family members won’t feel the same all-consuming terror that Tish feels for her loved one, wrongfully placed in jail and unlikely to be released anytime soon.