baldwin, black love and ‘if beale street could talk’
February 5, 2019
In much of Baldwin’s work, we are forced to question if love can survive in a world ripe with poverty, mishaps and torturous social conditions. The recent film adaption of If Beale Street Could Talk begs this question and more. The film laments heavily on if or how the Black family can survive the torment of America by unraveling the love story of main characters, Tish and Fonny. The important thematic question is bolstered by the directorial stylings of Barry Jenkins, who made Moonlight into an Oscar-winning film.
One of the strongest ways that the film explores how a physical and metaphorical place, like Beale Street, can contextualize the Black experience is through sound and color. Fonny invites Tish to his basement apartment and as they make love there for the time, the rain of New York City is ever-present. It serves as a testament to how poor Blacks, like Tish and Fonny, share a special relationship with a city as its most accessible victims. While Tish is having a nightmare about Fonny’s incarceration, it is the sound of Fonny’s screams and the subway that awakes her. The viewer shares an intimate moment with Fonny’s mother in Puerto Rico as she stares at herself in the mirror, tries to drown out the sounds of the city outside, and face the task of freeing her child’s soulmate.
On the inverse, scenes devoid of city sounds are ripe with conflict and emotional truths — conversations in the office of Fonnie’s lawyer, during visits to the jail to visit Fonny, or as characters talk at restaurants. During each visit that Tish makes to Fonny, the camera refuses to pan away from their view of each others’ faces. We, the viewer, are unable to turn away from each of their pain because of this. Jenkins uses these kinds of shots throughout the film to convey the emotional weight of the characters, even in moments of joy, as they attempt to save or love one another.
As the film jumps back and forth in time, the usage of color also grounds it. Tish and Fonny often wear yellows and greens, or the color appears in different parts of the settings around them; a reminder they are, as Tish states in the film, “a part of each other, flesh of each other’s flesh.”
It is this analogy of flesh and love that drives the film towards completion. During a flashback when Fonny and Tish visit a potential warehouse space to live in, the camera pans to empty parts of the room and compels the viewer to imagine the best version of life that the budding Black family could have.
Black love, no matter how spectacular, cannot save the ones we love from racial suffering. This is the hard truth that simmers beneath the film’s surface. In the end, it is not Fonny’s immediate release from jail, but the birth of Fonny Jr. that gives hope. One of the film’s most beautiful shots is during the birth scene as Tish’s mother looks down at Tish and Fonny Jr; three generations of Blackness striving towards love and survival.
The film’s exploration of Black family in the midst of suffering is particularly timely during Black History Month 2019 in an age where the Black family is still under attack. If Trayvon Martin had survived, he could have turned 24 today and could have felt the embrace of his mother’s arms. In a country that aims to forget what is done to the Black family, we must always remember Tish’s words, “Fonny was once 22. I was 19. But neither of us is young anymore, can’t afford to be. Instead, we gotta live the life we’ve been given and live it so our children can be free.”
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