Fonny and Tish are two African-Americans deeply in love with each other. Their relationship begins with optimism and hope, but reality rears its ugly head when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. To make matters worse, Tish learns shortly after her lover’s incarceration that she is pregnant with his child. What should have been a moment of celebration and joy is instead a source of great tension shared between both families. Tish’s family soon hires a lawyer to defend Fonny in court, hoping that in doing so, they can find enough evidence to acquit him before the baby is born.
Given the general social tensions at the time, the 2010s saw no shortage of films dealing with race relations. If Beale Street Could Talk differs from many of its contemporaries in that it is an adaptation of a novel from the 1970s as opposed to a story written in response to the perceived social problems. In many ways, that made this story difficult to stomach, as many of the injustices highlighted in the original novel were still issues over forty years after it was written. By the end of the film, you will truly feel for this couple as they make progress on their case, and every setback is made all the more painful as a result.
In a lot of ways, If Beale Street Could Talk brings to mind Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in how it humanizes a person for whom the audience has a lot of contempt. Fonny’s accuser is a Puerto Rican woman by the name of Victoria Rogers. For much of the film, there is a good chance she won’t be on your good side because it is partly due to her fleeing the country that the trial is postponed as much as it is. Tish’s mother, Sharon, is determined to seek her out and bring her back to the United States. However, it’s clear the woman has been completely traumatized by her experience. When Sharon pleads with her to return, Victoria infers that she has no idea what it’s like to be raped.
The most frustrating moment is when it’s ultimately revealed that a corrupt policeman set Fonny up in the first place. Fonny defends Tish from a man making unwanted advances on her, and for his troubles, a policeman assumes he is the instigator. Only when the shopkeeper explains what happens does the officer stand down.
It doesn’t help that, even taking the blatantly biased system out of the equation, misidentifications in sexual assault cases were far more common in the 1970s. To begin with, it was seldom made clear to victims that the perpetrator may not be in the police lineup. Because of this, victims would invariably pick the person in the lineup who most closely resembled the guilty party rather than admit the police failed to capture them. As is the case with Fonny’s plight, the fact that the police could – and did – prod victims into choosing the person in the lineup they believe to be guilty lent the system a great potential for corruption, effectively impressing their own racial biases onto those who otherwise wouldn’t buy into them. This isn’t even getting into factors that weren’t technically anyone’s fault. After all, DNA profiling wouldn’t be extensively used in criminal investigations until 1986, meaning that the simplest way to disprove Victoria’s case didn’t yet exist. In the end, Fonny is ultimately the victim of the era as much as he is a racist system.
With no way to win, Fonny’s case is delayed again and again until he finally accepts a plea bargain. Like many other African-American men before and after him, he is willingly branded a criminal and accepts a lengthy prison sentence in order to cut his losses. As Tish aptly puts it in the narration, Fonny is ultimately doomed because neither the police nor the district attorney could be bothered to do their job. The film does end on a strange note of optimism, as Tish’s son is shown to be healthy and has a great relationship with his father given the circumstances. At the same time, it’s exceptionally bittersweet because it leads the audience to wonder what hardships their son will experience in his lifetime. It doesn’t help that, meeting his father in prison, part of his innocence is lost before it had a chance to manifest.
Director Barry Jenkins made a name for himself in 2016 with his sophomore effort, Moonlight. Though his debut film, Medicine for Melancholy, was itself acclaimed, Moonlight saw the budding director win multiple awards during Oscar season. That a film starring a gay African American protagonist could win the “Best Picture” award was borderline unfathomable at the time. It certainly wasn’t the kind of film I could have seen winning even at the beginning of the decade in question. While it was certainly daring, I would say its greatest strength is that Mr. Jenkins lent his work a timeless quality. Unfortunately, as well made as it is, I can’t quite say the same is true of If Beale Street Could Talk.
When I saw this film for the first time, I could tell it was spawned from the late-2010s satire scene. I have little doubt that it’s an important film, but the characters are ultimately subsumed by the message. Meanwhile, Moonlight managed to touch upon many of the issues raised in If Beale Street Could Talk. One may argue making the racial issues highlighted in Moonlight the main focus for If Beale Street Could Talk, the message is made much more powerful, but I don’t believe that to be the case. By having the satirical elements in Moonlight remain in the background, the narrative had free reign to cover a large number of themes all while being able to exist on its own terms. If Beale Street Could Talk, on the other hand, is ruled by its message, though it is one worth hearing out regardless.
Final Score: 6/10