Celebrating Black History Month: If Beale Street Could Talk

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If Beale Street Could Talk is a visually stunning film based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel that highlights the struggles that black people in urban areas faced during the 1970s.

With February signaling the start of Black History Month, I took a walk down to the Drexel to watch this Academy Awards-nominated and Golden Globe-winning film.

Released Dec. 25, 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk is the very latest from Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight. A film that is not afraid to tell it as it is, Beale Street examines what love, loss, and life could have looked like in Harlem from a black person’s perspective during the 1970s.

The movie follows the story of Tish and Fonny, a young black couple who have been best friends since childhood. Moving between flashbacks and the present, Jenkins weaves a tale of young lovers divided as Tish discovers she is pregnant soon after Fonny is wrongly thrown in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Throughout the film, we learn through Tish’s narration how the two came to fall in love, the prejudices that they face within their white-dominated world, as well as the obstacles their two families push to overcome to get their innocent son out of jail.

With Hollywood’s constant oversimplification of romance, I found this movie to be quite refreshing for its hard, candid depiction of life.

Though it was tough to watch Tish and Fonny fall in love knowing that they were going to be separated, I was enraptured with the way that Kiandra “KiKi” Layne and Stephan James sold the connection between their characters through looks and body language alone, and how their characters fought, both together and separately, both in and out of Fonny’s jail, to stay with each other and to stand against the world.

In other movies, this kind of love is shown to be able to overcome any obstacle, to triumph against all odds for that happy ending. But in Beale Street, and often in life, it does not.

I also found the film’s depiction of family to be unique as well. Both Tish and Fonny had families with both their mothers and fathers in the picture, and their families were actively supportive of their respective children.

Tish and Fonny’s fathers end up committing crimes in order to get funding for Fonny’s case. Tish’s mother flies out to Puerto Rico to track down Victoria Rogers who has identified Fonny as her rapist. Tish’s family does not chide her for getting pregnant outside of marriage, but rather celebrates the baby-to-be.

I felt that these depictions of a centralized, loving family contrasted greatly and positively against the images of broken homes so often associated with black families by the media, and felt it was important to view such a difference on screen.

While I did enjoy the movie’s portrayal of love and family, as well as the stunning cinematography that frames the piece so beautifully, the overall storyline is where the film truly lacks. When the story wrapped up, there were several plotlines that had yet to finish.

We never learn about what becomes of Fonny’s imprisoned friend Daniel, nothing happens with the tension between Fonny and Officer Bell, the fate of Victoria Rogers is unknown, and the future of Tish, Fonny, and Alonzo Jr. is uncertain by the end.

Critical points within the film, such as Fonny’s arrest, as well as the trial where he pleads guilty to the rape, are talked about rather than shown. This made it hard for the viewer to truly feel for the characters and to connect with their struggles, thus making the film seem anticlimactic as a whole.

Despite its weak storyline, I would suggest going to see If Beale Street Could Talk. Its distinctive take on family and love differentiates it from what we typically find within the media today.

If you are looking for a real love story blended in with true hardship and history, one that is not afraid to show how the underdog must put up with the uglier side of society, this film is the one for you.

Sonata Wilson

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