Arts·Point of view

Talking about Beale Street: What the movie gets right (and wrong) about Black life and love

Spoilers ahead! Amanda Parris and Lincoln Blades discuss the latest from Oscar winner Barry Jenkins. If Beale Street Could Talk expands to more cities Jan. 4.

Spoilers ahead! Amanda Parris and Lincoln Blades discuss the latest from Oscar winner Barry Jenkins

If Beale Street Could Talk is in theatres now. (Annapurna Pictures)

If there were a checklist for making a cinematic classic, If Beale Street Could Talk would hit every mark. It's based on critically acclaimed source material by James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers to put pen to paper. Its director, Barry Jenkins, is a celebrated auteur who swept Hollywood off its feet with his last film, Moonlight. Its talented ensemble cast combines emerging actors with veteran OGs.

Masterful cinematography? Check.

Sweeping score? Check.

A trailer that will bring goosebumps and maybe even a tear to your eye? Check, check. check.

(About that trailer — watch it below.)

If Beale Street Could Talk expands to more cities this Friday, and since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the adaption of Baldwin's 1974 novel has been met with widespread acclaim, already garnering some notable award wins and nominations.

It tells the story of two childhood friends, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who become lovers while living in '70s Harlem. Their romance is disrupted when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

For my column this week, I've invited my friend Lincoln Blades to talk about the film with me. Lincoln is a columnist for Teen Vogue and a juvenile justice reporting fellow for John Jay College in New York City. We both consider this film a perfect invitation to explore how we tell stories about Black people loving each other against the backdrop of racial injustice.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited. (And yes, there are spoilers ahead.)

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Amanda Parris: When I saw Beale Street for the first time, I had a hugely emotional experience. I just remember realizing midway through the film that I was in the midst of watching a Black period romance film. You don't see Black period films very often and when you do they're normally during the time of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. So for this to be a period film rooted in a romance that occurs against the backdrop of racial oppression, police violence and the early days of the prison industrial complex was a brilliant juxtaposition.

Lincoln Blades: So my overall thoughts on the film, coming into it having read the book, is that I wished it got as painful as the book did. The one thing that James Baldwin does better than almost every other writer is how he writes about the human loss created by mass incarceration, from every second to every year. He is adept at making you feel like every single second in jail just furthers how we're dehumanized and losing something. And the film touches on that, when Fonny snaps at Tish and says, "Do you know what's happening to me in here?" And there was a little bit of me that wanted the director Barry Jenkins to delve into that. And then another time Tish comes, you can tell something happened to him because Fonny is beat up. The film doesn't really go into that.

But, on the other hand, what was really, really amazing was the scene between Fonny and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) where he contextualizes jail for Fonny as they sit around the table. And he contextualizes it in a way where you actually don't need to see what happened to him because you kinda get it. What I wanted to get from the film was a true sense of, "This is how devastating every second in jail is."

I saw the film at the North American premiere in Toronto during Toronto International Film Festival, and when the film ended Barry Jenkins spoke and said, "The book was too bitter for what we need today in 2018." And from that perspective, I can see why he chose to make some changes.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

AP: After I read the book I was so thankful to Barry Jenkins for some of the changes that he made. There are certain things that I don't need to see onscreen in 2018. I think James Baldwin needed to write that pain in 1974 because it was something that was rarely articulated and depicted at that time, but whether or not we need to see that translated on screen today is a different question. Black pain is something we get in abundance on screen right now. Black people loving each other? Not so much. That's why the love — between Tish and Fonny but also with the family — stood out so much.

LB: Especially when that pain is depicted bad. In that damn movie Detroit it's handled poorly.

AP: I haven't seen that movie. And to be honest, from the trailer, I wasn't sure I wanted to.

LB: I really despise films that advertise themselves as exploring the interior of Black life but end up just being disaster porn. It's just Black folks, who haven't been fully built out as characters, suffering for the whole film. That's all Detroit and other films like that are, and I'm glad Beale Street avoided that.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

AP: I want to go back to something you just mentioned about wanting to see more of what Fonny was going through in jail. So often stories like this follow the people who are incarcerated and not the people who are left behind. There's only one scene of Fonny on the inside and it's when he's lying on the bunk thinking back to his art. It's a very tender, beautiful moment — but we never see more of his life inside jail because this story is all about the person who was left on the outside.

Tish is also doing time, just in a different type of way. We rarely follow the woman who is left behind and see them trying to figure it out. Tish doesn't have a master plan. She's not a strategist; there is no brilliant scheme. That moment in Puerto Rico when Sharon (Regina King) arrives on the tarmac — she's so dramatically dressed with the scarf on her head and that amazing green dress. She looks like she could be an international spy, but she's not. She's just a mom, making this incredibly brave gamble because she's trying to save her family. You can see her humanity in how she stumbles and and doesn't know exactly what she's doing.

LB: That's a really interesting point that you're bringing up. So let's talk about Daniel! Let's talk about Paper Boi!

AP: He's so good!

LB: He was excellent!

AP: He needs to get every nomination!

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

LB: Although it is definitely Tish's film, the reason why I want to speak so much about Daniel is because there was so much in his performance. In the minimal amount of time he was onscreen, that speaks leaps and bounds about Black masculinity.

Right now, in the Black community, masculinity and toxic hyper-masculinity are at war and Black men are desperately trying to build a healthy conceptualization of what healthy Black masculinity should look like. In many ways, Black masculinity is a perpetual reclamation project. Black men are constantly in this state of trying to reclaim what was lost, what was plundered and what was underdeveloped.

The societal tent poles of masculinity, to me, are the abilities to provide and to protect. The thing that really stood out to me about Fonny and Daniel's amazing jail conversation scene is how they go from joking and laughing to a moment of deep vulnerability, which was almost shocking to see on screen for me between two Black men. That's not typically where Black masculinity lives. In its most toxic sense, our masculinity is about showing no weakness, or no vulnerability, or quote-unquote softness. And the word appeared a few times in that scene and really underscored a central theme in the movie, to me, which was: scared.

And even though Daniel admitted it to Fonny, that's not a word that we really ever use. That's what really got me down that path to thinking about masculinity and how it was portrayed in the film. You can answer this better than I can, but do you feel like it ever overwhelmed the story of the Black women or do you think it kind of balanced out?

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

AP: Well, that's an interesting question because — and I might sound a bit like I'm contradicting myself here — but I think as much as we're following Tish, I'm not sure it was ever truly her story. I literally left the film thinking, "I don't know anything about her." I know that she works at a perfume counter, I know that she's a daughter. I know she is in love with Fonny. But I didn't leave the theatre having a sense of her passions or her interests.

However, I know that Fonny is an artist. I see that he has friends and social circles and knows a little Spanish. I know he has life goals like wanting to travel. And that absence in Tish's character is something that is rooted in the novel. I wanted to know what it's like for Tish supporting someone who is going through this and how limited it made her feel. What life goals — other than getting a place together — did Tish have that were curtailed? I wanted a little more substance and I think that Daniel's scene revealed to me that it didn't require a lot to get to that. That scene between Daniel and Fonny, to me, is the most important one in the movie.

LB: I think the Daniel scene was the best acted and the best performed scene in the movie, but the most important scene to me is the day with Levy (Dave Franco). All of the information that Baldwin gives us in the Daniel scene actually rolls right into that scene.

AP: Are you talking about the whole day or just the scene with Levy?

LB: I'm talking about that whole day. In the Daniel scene, Daniel is telling him, "Yo, you got it man, you're doing your thing," and Fonny was like, 'I wanna get a better place but we get rejected every time these [white male] landlords see me, and when I sent her alone this white man thought she wanted to sleep with him." Back to the tent poles of masculinity that I mentioned earlier about provide and protect, he enters the Levy scene in super provide mode. He's showing her the place, and she's trying to see it.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

So back to the scene: Fonny is laying it out for Tish and she's trying to see, and then he begins acting out moving the fridge and what he's doing is actualizing his masculinity. He, as a young Black man, has had so many issues just trying to use his autonomy to provide for the woman that he loves, but now he's there and they finally have the chance and he's getting the helping hand he needs. And then he has this really tender moment with Levy where Fonny asks, "Why are you helping us?" and Levy says, "I'm my mother's son." So they leave and they hit the streets and they're on cloud nine. Fonny just achieved something that is hard as hell for Black men to do today, but was ridiculously hard back then: he's providing.

AP: And I loved that their cloud nine moment is so pure, so beautiful and so tragically fleeting.

LB: Exactly. So Fonny comes back from getting the cigarettes and sees some creep all over Tish in the grocery store and he goes into full protection mode. And after he throws the dude off of her, in that brief moment, he has done something that not too many Black men in that time, anywhere in the world, were able to really do: actualize your full masculinity in the sense of providing and protecting. And literally, a split second later, here comes the cop — on him and threatening to take him to jail, where Black masculinity, in those two senses, is stripped away and starved to death. Not only was his ability to protect shattered, it's been flipped on its head because during that entire tense interaction with the cop while the officer was aggressively grabbing him, the only thing between the officer and Fonny was Tish as she reasoned with the officer.

AP: She's trying to protect.

LB: And in that moment, his ability to provide and protect is drained from him. In his mind — and I'm putting myself in Fonny's shoes as a Black man who has had interactions with the police — you know what she is doing is the right thing, but you're aware of what it costs you as a man. The attempt at actualizing his masculinity is now going in reverse.

AP: When I saw Tish step in — put herself between Fonny and Officer Bell — that moment felt very familiar because Black women have been protecting Black men for so long. Also, let's be real, he needed some protecting! Fonny gave up his whole damn street address to that cop in 2.5 seconds. Fam. What are you doing?

There's so much that comes up when Black women and Black men try to love each other in a world that doesn't love them back. I think we trigger things in each other, things that are beyond our actual lived experience, things that are ancestral and generational. I felt that in the moment when Fonny, out of frustration, throws the tomatoes against the wall. Her stepping in when the officer comes made rational sense, but his frustration and rage is about something deeper, something more historic.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

LB: What did you think about the ending?

AP: After reading the book I was really, really thankful that Barry Jenkins chose not to use the book version in the film. I don't think I could have taken it. I would have loved to see the kitchen scene between Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Frank (Michael Beach) because when we're talking about the impact of incarceration, that scene really exemplifies how it destroys the family on the outside. I feel like we missed something crucial in that absence. But the actual suicide? I don't think I needed to see that.

I found it very powerful that we don't end with Tish's labour as Baldwin chooses, but ahead a few years with the child. And seeing Tish at a different stage in life was very poignant. There's that beautiful scene early in the film where Ernestine says, "Unbow your head, sister," and in that final scene we get to witness Tish's head held high, no longer bowed.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

LB: There was a part in that final scene with Tish, Fonny and their son that was the most emotional part for me. Fonny was about to pick something up to eat and his son was like, "No, Dad, first you have to say grace." And Fonny stops and looks at his son for a moment, and I go back to Baldwin's writing about what jail steals from someone and I was thinking, someone had to teach this kid that before you eat you have to say grace. Someone had to teach him to say grace, someone had to teach him how to talk — and he missed all of that! And in that moment, when their son says that one line, Fonny is so taken aback because his son was nurtured to that point and none of it really came from him.

So, what are your overall thoughts?

AP: I think it's a beautiful movie. I love it. I love that it exists. I love how it's shot. I think the cinematography is so beautiful. I love the way they light her afro.

LB: Wait, let me cut you off really quickly. I want to talk about how it was shot in the sex scene, and I remember you had a comment you wanted to make in regards to that.

AP: Right. First of all, there was zero foreplay. Literally every Hollywood movie has conditioned us to believe that women don't require any foreplay to have a pleasurable sexual experience, which is insane.

LB: I don't wanna be gross, but in the theatre I was like, "Are things moist down there?" It just felt like he went right to getting it in.

AP: But that's how it always is in the movies. It's so crazy, and there's always that sideboob shot and that one big thrust. I would've preferred if they cut away from the scene so we can just imagine that they had a beautiful, intimate first time experience and then returned to them a little sweaty and just holding each other.

LB: I felt like that was a super masculine framing scene, but even for me, as a man, it didn't really hit the mark.

AP: No, it didn't.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

LB: So here's my problem with that scene, and my problem with their relationship in general: whether someone is introverted or extroverted, when you're with someone you love, there's a very symbiotic energy that occurs. There's an immediate familiarity that I wish I saw between Tish and Fonny, not only in the sex scene, but just somewhere else in the film period. They had a connection, but I don't know if they had an energy, kind of like what they had when they were kids in the bathtub. Their gaze was almost unfamiliar. The scene with her and Daniel was the best indication of that energy.

AP: Their connection did feel a little alien at times. Although Tish does say in the novel that she was seeing him in a whole new light, I don't know if they ever found a balance in the film between being with someone you've known your whole life, but then re-experiencing them once you've fallen in love.

Overall, I really do love the movie and I want it to inspire more people to make Black period romance films. I think the score by Nicholas Britell is one of the most beautiful film scores I've ever heard. 

LB: From a technical perspective, one of the things that I saw that was really jarring but that I loved was the scene where Tish is on the subway platform. Fonny sprints down the steps to be greeted by bars, and is screaming for her to help him. I would've honestly loved to see more moments like that.

AP: I'm always down for a little more dreamy surrealism. I love it.

LB: That's what I'm saying! Yeah, my review is, simply put, it was great.

(Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

If Beale Street Could Talk. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry. 119 min. Directed by Barry Jenkins.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.