Subtleness of a Black Love Story in If Beale Street Could Talk

Paloma Torres

  1. Introduction

For centuries, the African-American community has been targeted through years of slavery, racism and systematic oppression in the United States. Although these negative sentiments towards black people in America have changed over time, there has always been some resentment and prejudice from the dominant race, in this case, the white community. With that being said, however, people of colour have made great advances in society as this notion of racism deteriorates. For example, multiculturalism in film has been on the rise since the 1980s and has gained even more popularity today. These films allow for people of colour to speak out on issues concerning race and allow them to tell stories of their people’s past. Author Laura U. Marks states that “Intercultural films and videos offer a variety of ways of knowing and representing the world.” (Marks, 2000:1) and “Intercultural cinema is a movement insofar as it is the emerging expression of a group of people who share the political issues of displacement and hybridity” (Marks, 2000:2), explaining how multiculturalism in film can broaden one’s views and can educate an audience. The film If Beale Street Could Talk directed by Barry Jenkins is a great example of this. Based on one of the many books by James Baldwin, it tells the story of two black young adults, Tish, a pregnant nineteen-year-old, and her boyfriend Fonny, who has been falsely accused and incarcerated for rape in Harlem, New York in the 1970s. The political message of the injustices within the American justice system as well as America’s treatment of black people is made very apparent to viewers throughout the film but is not its only focus. The love story between Tish and Fonny is explored in the film and is the second major plotline in the story. Jenkins’ intertwining of both the political and romantic aspects of the plot was well-done, as these two themes can be difficult to merge. This essay will argue that the political film, If Beale Street Could Talk directed by Barry Jenkins effectively conveys a deep, political message while using subtle film techniques to portray a love story within the plot.

2. Living in “Beale Street”

If Beale Street Could Talk has many political topics discussed in one film, including institutional racism, teen pregnancy and the treatment of black people in America. The novel by James Baldwin was written in 1974 in a time where according to Bill Schwarz, “a state terror against radical black America was still underway” (Schwarz, 2019:192) and “Baldwin’s fear for America was becoming ever-more acute.” (Schwarz, 2019:192). Clearly, these issues are still relevant today with the contemporary film being so popular.

Institutional racism is the main political topic in the plot of the film and novel. This is obvious in that Fonny is persecuted for a crime he did not commit. As Robert J. Corber puts it, “ A racist beat cop, who resents Fonny’s presence in Greenwich Village as an affront to his manhood, deceives the traumatized rape victim into believing that Fonny was the perpetrator, and she picks Fonny out of a police line-up in which he is the only black man.” (Corber, 2019:179). This case is a very common one seen throughout history, where white people view black people as sexual predators preying on white women. It is seen in many films such as To Kill a Mockingbird directed by Robert Mulligan, about a white lawyer defending a black man who was in almost the same situation as Fonny. Beale Street talks about how young black men are targets and this has happened far too often using voiceovers from Tish, describing the tragic case. Jenkins also highlights this terribly common issue by abruptly cutting to black and white photos that are representative of this oppression young black people have faced. 

A key plotline in the story and an important political issue is teen or young pregnancy. As mentioned before, Tish is 19 when she finds out she is pregnant with Fonny’s baby and the couple are not yet married. This comes as a surprise but is a happy one for Tish’s family and is celebrated. Fonny’s family, however, is quite the opposite.  His mother and sisters are quite religious and do not approve of Tish or her family. Bill Schwarz describes the negative encounter as such: “On hearing that Tish is pregnant, Fonny’s mother allows the bile inside her to come forth in a brutal, volcanic condemnation of Tish for leading her son into sin. Harsh words are spoken, and the scene closes with Fonny’s father striking his wife.” (Schwarz, 2019:194). In this case, as with many girls in this situation, Tish is seen as a sinful girl and it is her fault, disregarding the fact that her son had anything to do with it. This scene is a reflection of the stigma and negative connotation that still exists when discussing a pregnancy out of wedlock.

The treatment of black people in America is another important topic dealt with in the film If Beale Street Could Talk. In the film, it is learned that Tish works in the perfume section of a department store, here, she deals with all kinds of people. It is a very powerful scene where she describes the type of people who approach her in the store. She describes the white women, who act superior, having them smell the perfume off the back of Tish’s hand, the black men, who are respectful and smell the perfume off the back of their own hand and give a friendly smile, and the white men, who hold Tish’s hand up to their nose for far too long. There is an instance similar to this where Tish is harassed by an Italian man at a grocery store after looking for an apartment with Fonny. These events are representative of how black women have been treated by white men, where they are seen as objects and at times, their property. This also goes for black men, evident in how Fonny was targeted for being black and was then arrested with no evidence, purely because the officer knew and disliked him.

3. Tish and Fonny, a Cinematic Love Story

Director Barry Jenkins is best known for the direction of the 2016 film Moonlight and most recently If Beale Street Could Talk. These films both deal with a heavy political issue and love story combined. This, in some cases, can be hard to capture, especially when the film is based on a book like the latter. Jenkins loved the book and according to Robert J. Corber, “he was drawn to If Beale Street Could Talk because of its emphasis on the importance of “sensuality and love.” (Corber, 2019:180) and that “. He captured this sensuality using his “trademark visual style—lush, painterly, and dreamlike” (Corber, 2019:180) with his use of music, colour and camera angles.

The music in the film captures this dream-like sensuality by using mainly instrumental, slow music. According to Bill Schwarz, in the novel, author James Baldwin made a point to have “ The readers hear what the characters are listening to: Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King.” (Schwarz, 2019:193), meanwhile, Jenkins chose not to include these notable black artists, occasionally adding some different artists like Miles and Coltrane as diegetic sound rather than as part of the soundtrack. The background music itself is mainly instrumental and slow, creating an airy, dreamlike feeling. It is effective because it makes the film more delicate rather than harsh. The music in the film plays a key role in capturing the romance between Tish and Fonny even when they are in dark times.

Jenkins’ use of colour in the film is evident in his obvious colour scheme and lighting techniques. An example of this is his use of the colours blue and yellow. In the film’s opening scene, we see the main characters, Tish and Fonny walking while holding hands. They are both wearing blue and yellow, she in a blue dress with a yellow coat and he in a yellow shirt and blue denim jacket.  Jenkins’ colour scheme is similar to, but not as extreme as those of Wes Anderson. Throughout the movie, these colours are present each time the lovers are in a scene together. It can be seen when Tish visits Fonny when he is in jail, with the yellow walls and blue in at least one of their outfits, and in every other scene with the two, shown either in the background, their clothes or both. Jenkins uses these colours in the lighting of the film as well, with glints of blue and yellow shining through the smokey atmosphere. This use of colour maintains the togetherness of the two characters no matter their situation and serves as a sort of symbol of their relationship.

Camera technique is another important aspect of the film in terms of capturing the love story between Fonny and Tish with this underlying political theme. For example, in the opening scene, they are filmed continuously side by side with their hands in the center. Here, Jenkins uses tracking shots to follow the couple, keeping them as the focal point of the shot. Jenkins also captures the couple’s romance with his use of close-ups and focus. While Fonny is in jail, these close-ups are important because although there is a glass barrier separating them, their love is still there. In these scenes, Jenkins cuts to close-ups on each of their faces giving the illusion that they are physically closer than they are. In a powerful moment when the audience first sees Fonny in jail, the lovers put their hands together on the window and the focus goes from their faces to their hands, emphasizing their connection. Overall, in the film, Jenkins uses music, colour and camera angles and shots to tell the protagonists’ love story even with such a heavy political subplot.

4. Conclusion

            The film If Beale Street Could Talk is not only an homage to James Baldwin’s great novel but to the black community. The very title refers to the discrimination and oppression this group has been forced to face over the course of history. Barry Jenkins has managed to encapsulate what James Baldwin had intended with his novel and has made a revolutionary film. How he depicts issues on people of colour in America and gender issues using careful, detail-oriented mise-en-scene has made the motion picture the success that it is, however, it could not be done without the amazing cast. All these elements worked together to win the three Oscar awards it deserved. In conclusion, Jenkins perfectly captures a delicate love story along with a heavy political theme in the film If Beale Street Could Talk.

5. Works Cited

Corber, Robert J. “Romancing Beale Street.” James Baldwin Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, pp. 178-190.

Jenkins, Barry, director. If Beale Street Could Talk. Amazon Prime, 2018.

Marks, Laura U. “The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses.” Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000, pp.1-23.

Mulligan, Robert, director. To Kill a Mockingbird. Universal Studios, 1962.

Schwarz, Bill. “A Star-Cross’d Nation: If Beale Street Could Talk, 2019.” James Baldwin Review 5.1 (2019): 191-196. 

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