'If Beale Street Could Talk': An Awakening of Love, Triumph, and Pain
BY MIA MONTALVO
If Beale Street Could Talk, directed by Barry Jenkins, debuted its premiere in select theaters this past weekend in New York and Los Angeles. Jenkins, best known for his Academy Award winning film, and the Oscar's 2016 Picture of the Year, Moonlight, as well as his 2008 debut of Medicine For Melancholy, is a storyteller of unorthodox romances. Specifically, Jenkins' works compose the devastating reality of what being black in America entails. As a filmmaker, he paints these stories on-screen through the paradoxical nature of love and injustice, and incredibly poetic cinematography.
The film If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted from a novel written by author James Baldwin in 1974. It is told from the perspective of Tish Rivers, played by Kiki Lawry in her first on-screen appearance as a soft-spoken nineteen-year-old who works at a perfume counter as one of the very few African-American employees permitted at the time. The story follows her narrative throughout the film. Taking place in the early 1970s in Harlem, New York, the film is an undeniably gentle yet, gruesome story of black love.
Tish and Alonzo, played by Stephan James, are magical. Their relationship was one that budded from an unjudging friendship and shared such an authentic perspective of the human condition. Young and in love, they discover one another in momentous reels in the park, loving stares on a crowded subway, and the intimate experiences of discovering sexuality. These moments of their relationship are sprinkled in between the reality that Alonzo, better known as Fonny, has been falsely accused of rape.
"I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass," said Tish in the film.
The story develops in vignettes of memory and reality: the warmth of touch upon skin and the coldness of glass prison booths. As Tish discovers that she is pregnant with Fonny's child, she has to face the harsh truth that Fonny may not be able to be in his child's life if they are unable to prove him innocent. The film becomes a fight for his freedom, but also unravels many other complexities.
Not only is there an absence of black love stories in Hollywood, but also stories that comprise the family dynamic of a black household in such a truthful narrative. Prominent characters in the film are Sharon Rivers, Tish's mother who is played by Regina King, and her father, played by Colman Domingo. The two are incredibly supportive of Tish's choice to have the baby and persistent in their efforts to release Fonny.
The character development of the women figures of the film is beautifully brought to light. The Rivers family is this unit of strong, unapologetic women. Contrasting Fonny's family, which is morphed by the societal constrictions and beliefs of the time, the Rivers family's roles demonstrate unconditional love.
After the Saturday premiere of the film at Loews Theater in New York City, Barry Jenkins, Regina King, and two of the film's producers stayed for a Q&A with audience members. In the discussion, Jenkins revealed that much of the stories he tells are based on the concept of nature versus nurture, the changing and yet everlasting social expectations of black individuals in America, and how these stories demand to be seen and felt on screen.
Regina King's role as Sharon Rivers is one that was inspired by the many women both Jenkins and King had been surrounded by.
"We are lucky to have a Sharon type in our lives," said King. "For me, it was my grandmother, you know my mother, my aunties, they were some fierce women."
Jenkins portrays each of his characters with their own story, their own struggles, and gently connects this back to the overall message of the film. His style of filmmaking, as seen in his previous work, allows the viewer to be a participant. In many scenes of Beale Street, he does this by casting very smooth, captivating shots of the character's face, evoking emotion and placing the viewer in the narrative.
Shooting the film in Harlem was one of the most rewarding experiences for the quality of the film, Jenkins shared. He explained that the production process involved searching for apartments, demoing them for the sets and even attending a community council meeting to truly get the feel for the landscape in which they would tell this story.
Beale Street's authenticity derived from its dialogue, honesty, and the solemn realities of society. In response to the film, many have referred to their experience as a feeling of awakening. Giving a voice to those who have faced the many injustices that have been diverged from for decades, Jenkins produced a narrative that is real to all who experience it. Of the many responses that the cast has received since the premiere, King shared the commentary that one white woman expressed to her: "I've never had to look in a black man's face like that before, and it was powerful."
Jenkins' cinematography showed Fonny with eyes that were both enlightened and bloodshot with pain. The musical score of the film by Nicholas Britell highlights this duality as well. Hopeful pianos and violins accompany the darkness of the scenes while also implying that there is an immense amount of love in the world, not only for Tish and Fonny as a couple, but with the simple moments in life that allow for acceptance.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens our eyes to a deep-rooted history in America and relays poetic justice. It reminds us that everyone has a story, and not one story should be deemed more important than another.
As James Baldwin says, "Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy."
Lead Image Credit: If Beale Street Could Talk / Instagram