I’m still not over the intensely tender experience that is watching Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. In her review of the film, my colleague Anne Cohen warns fans, “Nothing can prepare you the wave of soft feelings that are about to drown in for the next two hours.” Truer words have never been spoken about Jenkins’ 2018 adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.
The story of Tish Rivers (newcomer Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) will reignite your belief in love. The wrongful rape charge against him that separates them before they can welcome their first child will make you feel foolish for believing in justice, American or otherwise. A centrepiece of the film is the fight for Fonny’s freedom, and it's an unflinching critique of the systemic racism embedded in the criminal justice system, and how it has historically impacted black men the most. But if Beale Street could talk, it would undoubtedly say "thank you" to black women for providing the magic that makes it such a profound masterpiece.
Very early on in the film, it was evident that Beale Street is a deep dive into the experience of black girlhood. There were moments that felt like I was watching a retelling of my own life thanks to some cosmic, emotional memory that is intrinsically linked to my identity. Witnessing the fear and anxiety drowning Tish as she prepared to reveal her pregnancy to her family was the first instance. The stigma around black girls and unplanned pregnancy is so strong that I grew up believing that being with child was the absolute worst thing that could happen to me. It would be a permanent stain on my character, a giveaway to the rest of the world that I was irresponsible, a failure. So until I was about 22-years-old, I experienced irrational, extreme dread every time my period was late (or early); whenever I gave a urine sample at a doctor’s office; or if I had the slightest upset stomach. But Tish's parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), meet her announcement with nothing but love, support, and encouragement. Her sister Ernestine (Teyonna Rivers) even demands that she “unbow [her] head” rather than hang it in shame. But it’s hard for black girls to anticipate such a warm embrace when carrying an unexpected new life thanks to prevalent narratives that suggest we be rejected because of it.
This repudiation actualises itself in a separate scene where Tish must tell Fonny’s family about their child. His mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters react with such hostility at the very thought of premarital sex that the confrontation becomes both painful and hilarious to watch. That even the slightest breach of social decorum from a black girl seems to upset the entire natural order of things is a burden we’ve been taught to carry from a young age.
If Beale Street Could Talk is littered with those small moments, some of them sore spots, that collectively shape what it means to be a black girl. Sometimes it’s a fierce overprotectiveness of your baby sister, similar to Earnestine’s. Other times it’s knowing that if you’re working at a perfume counter as a black woman, like Tish did, a white man will take your hand and hold it up to his nose “for a lifetime.” Perhaps it’s following the lead of the Hunt women and clinging to religion and respectability in the face of unhappiness and despair, for better or for worse. Or it could be harbouring such a devotion to your children that you’re willing to fly out out of the country and do unofficial detective work if it means reuniting your child with the love of her life. That’s what Sharon did.
In 2018, you shouldn’t need Beale Street to tell you that black women hold shit down. They show up on the front lines to support themselves, their families, their communities, and blackness itself over and over again. King’s amazing performance brings that dedication to life in this film. To once again quote Cohen, “Despite its male director, and source material author, Beale Street feels like a distinctly feminine film, concerned as it is with properly mapping out the experiences of its women.” Through the process of truly seeing its female characters, the men come to life. Viewers get to intimately know Fonny through the eyes of his female lover. We know that Joseph is a standup guy because of how he treats his wife and daughters. It’s possible to love each other through our own trepidations and concerns, because the black women in this film modelled it so perfectly. If Could Street Could Talk — and it can — it would sing our praises.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in UK cinemas 8th February 2019