“All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.
– James Baldwin, “The Harlem Ghetto”, Commentary (February 1948)
[I saw If Beale Street could Talk on 21 December at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco, CA.]
This was what I needed.
I’m not kidding. I spent far too much of 2018 watching lots of art by marginalized peoples, but constantly walked out disappointed that almost none of those works had the courage of their convictions. Whether it be the pulled punches of Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You (both local productions starring people I know personally), the tiptoeing delicacy of Detroit ’67 and White, or even the victim-blaming shit show that was The Hate U Give, I saw waaaay too much art – most of it Black-made – that felt its job was done by addressing racism rather than dealing with its ugliness head-on. Younger generations are often thought of as being more “raw” and “uncouth” as their predecessors, yet I couldn’t help but wonder what bolder Black artists from days gone by would have thought about the aforementioned pussy-footing I saw this past year.
Fortunately, contemporary filmmaker Barry Jenkins looked to the past for inspiration for his latest film. The result is an uncompromising look at Black America’s past that is frighteningly similar to our present.
Tish and Fonny are in love. In most other circumstances, that would be where the story ends. But Tish and Fonny are Black in America. That means their story constantly stops before it can ever properly begin. All they want to see the world, but they may never leave Beale Street.
I’m so glad I saw this at the end of the year. 2018 started off with me suffering through the condescending shit show that was Stuck before occasionally having to slough through the disappointments mentioned in the first paragraph. All of those projects were made by people who told themselves that they were doing good by addressing contemporary racism, but each and every one lived in a world that seemed like an alternate universe to our (which, in the case of Sorry to Bother You, it actually was).
If Beale Street could Talk takes place in the world we know all too well: one were White cops hunt Black men the way game hunters go after pheasants; one where “justice” against Black men works swiftly, if not accurately; one where Black women are meant to be seen, not heard; one where the prospect of a child born outside of marriage can bring out the worst in a family.
There’s no story, per se, to be found here. That is, there’s no proper beginning or ending. Life begins at birth and ends at death, so everything else is just filler. This is a fly-on-the-wall story about what could easily be considered filler. Instead, it’s about how the simple act of trying to live from one day to the next can be a struggle for someone who isn’t part of the White/cis-male/hetero/Christian norm. There’s no beginning or ending because societal problems aren’t as easy to solve as a screenplay would lead you to believe (see The Hate U Give – or rather, don’t).
Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Moonlight, also stopped without a proper ending, leaving we the audience to ponder what happens next. Once again, he’s delivered another fantastic slice-of-life story about being Black in America. Once again, he’s made one of the best films of the year.
Since I’m posting this review so damn late, I’m forced to skip over the usual intricate details of the film. Suffice it to say, all you’ve heard is true: this is a great film from start to finish. It’s beautifully shot, realistically directed, and edited with consideration of the scene rather than trying to give the editor something to do.
The fact that this film has only three Oscar nominations is inexcusable, but if Regina King doesn’t win for her performance, you’ll know the game is rigged.
If Beale Street could Talk is the sort of film Hollywood America the world needs more of. With Hollywood finally doing something right by giving us the exciting-but-complex good time that was Black Panther, it’s great to know that there’s also a place in the ever-expanding film landscape for an image of Black America different than the one constantly pushed by Fox News.
Jenkins’ film doesn’t really end because our story isn’t over. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to leave it to Beale Street to tell our story for us.