In the Bob Dylan song, “Hurricane,” about the trumped up charges and incarceration of boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter, there is a line about Carter being pulled over by the police in Patterson, New Jersey on a steamy summer night in 1966, “just like the time before and the time before that…. If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street.”
Set around the same time in a New York battered by racial unrest, James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is informed by the same understanding of the ground rules for black Americans. For Baldwin, every black person in America, in a sense, comes from Beale Street, the birthplace of Louie Armstrong, jazz and his own father. It’s the story of how a race of people has been—and continues to be— systemically marginalized and disenfranchised.
Barry Jenkins, who was responsible for last year’s Oscar winner, “Moonlighting,” has gracefully translated the story into a film that preserves Baldwin’s tenderness and rage. It’s a period piece with contemporary resonance. The film feels timeless because the issues for blacks in America have essentially not changed.
The film is a tale of youthful innocence and mature disillusionment. In the opening scene in a park, green with promise, 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) turns to her 22-year-old boyfriend Fonny and asks, “Are you ready for this?” And Fonny says, “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.” In reality, they are not prepared for the cruelty that awaits them. They’ve grown up around a pattern of racism but still they hope for the best.
“Beale Street” is a simple, almost clichéd story of young love, but in the black world these lovers come from, it’s not just about them; they’re part of a bigger story of people struggling to survive. There is a whole different logic at work here, one thing does not necessarily lead to another. Jenkins fractures the narrative to convey a sense of dislocation. Moving back and forth in time, he places the outcome ahead of the action that led to it, as if to say, in this world the results are preordained.
So before long, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in jail. As Tish fearfully tells her family about her condition, her mother (an enormously sympathetic Regina King) makes sure her daughter feels loved and supported. However, things don’t go nearly as well when Fonny’s family is summoned to the apartment.
The conflicting dynamics of black families are confronted as Fonny’s bible thumping mother (Aujanue Ellis) explodes at the prospect of a child out of wedlock. Her solution is to pray, pray, pray. Her husband (Michael Beach) has no patience for her religiosity and slaps her hard in the face. His answer is to take off to a bar with Tish’s father (Coleman Domingo) to celebrate the baby. Different strokes, different expressions of love.
As it turns out, Fonny is in jail because he got on the wrong side of a white cop who frames him for a rape across town. And as the wheels of injustice grind him down, there is not a thing he can do about it. Jenkins flashes photos of other young black men in chains to show this is not an isolated incident. There is no place for Fonny in this society but in jail. White America’s response to poverty and race issues is mass incarceration. If you can’t keep them down on the farm, keep them down in jail.
On a better day, Fonny reunites with his old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry), who embodies the endangered spirit of a young black men. Three months out of prison on a bogus charge, he sees no way forward. In a devastating scene, Henry brings a heartbreaking honesty to Danny’s despair. But he has not been broken. All he wants is a shot at the happiness promised by the Declaration of Independence. The shadow of slavery is vast.
But somehow Tish and Fonny mange to keep their love alive under these terrible circumstances. So at the same time, “Beale Street” is a condemnation of racial injustice and an affirmation of the power of love. Cinematically, it’s a delicate balancing act between the harshness of the world and the grace of love, and Jenkins pulls it off. Here, as in “Moonlighting,” he has a way of cutting to the emotional heart of a performance. And the film moves seamlessly from the earth tones, lyricism of the jazzy soundtrack and Tish’s narration of Baldwin’s poetic language, to an eruption of pent up anger.
The dichotomy between hope and hopelessness comes to a head when Tish’s mother scraps together enough money to go to Puerto Rico to plead with the raped woman to exonerate Fonny. She shows her a picture of the loving couple, but the woman has been so violated and damaged herself by the system that she can’t find it in her heart to see the truth. Everyone suffers from injustice.
Yet, Jenkins does his best to honor the sweetness of Baldwin’s story. Despite the brutality of a world where everything is stacked against you, Baldwin never lost his faith. He once said, “every poet is an optimist.” And it is that optimism that makes this film sing in very dark times.