October 10, 2018
Unbow Your Head, Sister: Exploring the Beauty of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ [NYFF]
When KiKi Layne’s Tish and Stephan James’ Fonny first make love and conceive their child, If Beale Street Could Talk cuts to a golden light shimmering off the surface of a jazz record. It spins, unevenly but with purpose, carrying with it the weight of history. Of American history. Of Black American history. The history that author James Baldwin spent a lifetime pulling into the present.
The film opens with Baldwin’s explanation of why Beale Street in Tennessee was chosen to title his Harlem-set romance. “Every black person in America was born on Beale Street…” he wrote, referring to both the birthplace of the blues in Memphis and to Beale Street Blues, the W. C. Handy song that captured its legacy. But even the quote from Baldwin goes on to ground the history of Beale Street in the story of his father, who he makes sure to specify was born there. Metaphorically, of course — “…born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” he goes on to say, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy” — though one wonders to whom Baldwin was referring: his biological father, whom his mother left because of his drug abuse, or the preacher who raised him.
Director Barry Jenkins barely knew his father, the man who was his namesake. He barely knew if the man was his biological father, too; perhaps biology ought not to matter, but his father died when he was twelve, “taking to his grave the knowledge [he] was not his son,” Jenkins once wrote. “In the few times his eyes met mine,” he continued, “I never saw anything in them but anger and hurt.” Some of what Jenkins’ childhood was can be seen in Moonlight, from Little’s poor Miami locale to his addict mother, but Mahershala Ali’s Juan as Little’s surrogate father feels like what Jenkins’ childhood wasn’t. A comforting addition, born as if out of wish fulfillment and a desire for children like himself to have a Juan to guide them. None of Jenkins three siblings knew their fathers either, and in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins, via Baldwin (or Baldwin, through Jenkins), tells the harrowing story of a child, Lonnie, who exists on screen only inside his mother’s womb, a child who might also grow up without fully knowing his father, should America have its way.
Childhood friends Tish and Fonny find themselves in a complicated predicament. Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, 22, is falsely accused of rape and likely headed for prison thanks to the scorn of a white police officer he once encountered (Ed Skrein, shouldering the fragile insecurity of all structural whiteness in his mere handful of scenes). Clementine “Tish” Rivers, 19, is pregnant with Fonny’s child. This is where Tish begins her story, telling us of everything that happens from this point on — her family’s hesitant support, Fonny’s family’s less-than-welcoming response, and how the two choose to progress — while taking us back to the moments leading up to her pregnancy, from a lifetime of warmth to the struggles that came alongside them, backing her and Fonny into corners at every turn. Her flashbacks slowly merge with those of all Black America, making her an occasional documentarian as her voice narrates not only Fonny’s story, but the stories of brutalized and incarcerated African Americans all over the country, as the vibrant filmic images give way to stark black & white photographs of Black men being arrested or jailed by white police. While Jenkins’ and cinematographer James Laxton’s frame moves with an ethereal beauty, these pictures stand deafeningly still, unable to break free from the history and circumstances that bind them.
Circumstance is the main driver of Beale Street’s plot. Not happenstance, mind you, but the forces that push (as if with intention) Tish, Fonny and their families to the point of desperation. Their fates are almost wholly dependent on white characters who either seek to harm them (Skrein’s Officer Bell) or help them without a complete understanding of their inner lives and what they’re up against (Finn Wittrock as Fonny’s well-meaning lawyer Hayward). Tish heading towards motherhood as the months go by is by no means treated as a ticking clock — at around two hours in length, the film bides its time — but with each forward step and each hurdle to proving Fonny’s innocence, Tish’s flashbacks show us the cost of what might be lost in greater and greater detail, as Fonny remains behind bars. Regardless of its melodic pacing, the love at the center of the film and the idea that it might be lost make the story feel urgent.
There’s a unique tenderness to Tish and Fonny’s budding romance, built on a foundation of childhood friendship, the kind where they threw soapy water at one another in a bathtub when they were younger. Their love grows from a place of genuine care, and despite the many hurdles to their being together — white landlords don’t seem to want to rent to them — their relationship feels like it has a beautiful future, or rather it will once Tish and her family get Fonny out of prison. They’re definitely going to build that apartment together, in that still-empty building, rented to them by Fonny’s acquaintance Levy (Dave Franco, “[his] mother’s son,” taught to recognize love even through hardship) and they’re definitely going to raise their child together… aren’t they? The hope that peeks through every corner of the screen in the flashbacks might say so — Laxton captures golden flares in the distance, often reflected on the actors’ beautiful skin — but in the present, Tish and Fonny’s families keep hitting wall after wall, erected by an uncaring system.
Tish’s father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Paris) are forced early on by her mother Sharon (Regina King) to move past shaming the young, unmarried, unemployed Tish and welcome her pregnancy; “Unbow your head, sister,” Ernestine tells her, protective rage turning slowly to support. Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) joins in the celebration, though his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne) aren’t as accepting of the children’s sin. The family members each have their own structures to cling to in response to the larger system, little worlds they create for themselves and for each other as mechanisms to cope. Fonny has his art; he spends time carving beautiful, abstract sculptures out of wood. He even gifts one to Tish’s mother, which makes Tish fall deeper in love with him. The Hunt women have religion. The Rivers family has, well, family, choosing joy and kindness even when it’s difficult; Frank Hunt, Fonny’s father, tries to choose the same even as his wife and daughters cling to moralizing doctrine.
The scene where the two families first meet on-screen is a delightful tête-à-tête, in which snippy insults imbued with Baldwin’s eloquence result in theatrical banter, but it soon turns deathly serious when Frank’s joyous, self-constructed refuge shatters in a moment of domestic violence. It forces into perspective the harsh reality that Tish’s child would be born into, and yet, it further denotes the need for these self-imposed structures, as the characters attempt to recapture their status quos by falling back on them once more.
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