Following up his 2016 Best Picture-winning film Moonlight, Barry Jenkins took on another film that tackles issues relating to the present day with If Beale Street Could Talk.
In an age when police brutality and the inequality of the justice system paint the news seemingly daily, the film sparks a conversation on tough topics while also allowing viewers to reflect upon the society they live in today.
Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk takes a stark look at the prejudices the justice system arbitrarily promotes onto black men in America, as well as the role of black masculinity within the family.
Set in New York City’s Harlem during the crime-filled 1970s, the film follows Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso “Fonny” (Stephan James), an expecting young couple that dreams of a bigger life but is stopped by injustice. With Fonny falsely accused of sexual assault, the film centers around family and what individuals would do for each other.
The dynamic between Tish and Fonny portrays stereotypes of couples, but that perspective shifts throughout the film. At the start, Fonny is Tish’s rock and exudes a powerful, masculine role in the relationship. But after being wrongly put behind bars, the couple’s relationship shifts and Tish becomes Fonny’s rock.
That power struggle and the stereotypes that derive from it are also seen through both Tish’s and Fonny’s parents. Fonny’s parents play into the idea of the domineering mother and lackluster, shameful father, while Tish’s parents seem to have a more equal partnership. Tish’s mother, Sharon (King), is nowhere near as domineering as Fonny’s, but she isn’t afraid to put Joseph (Colman Domingo) in his place.
The portrayal of black masculinity is something Jenkins focuses on — and he ultimately breaks any preconceived notions. Defying the macho, man-of-the-house typecast, Joseph is comforting and tender, all of which isn’t necessarily the norm for black men in film roles. Similarly, Fonny’s depiction in prison defies the preconceived notions and standardization of a black man in prison. Jenkins captures a beautiful shot of Fonny lying on his prison cot while a single tear trickles down his face. This portrayal of emotion defies not only black masculinity but toxic masculinity in general.
Though Jenkins’ cinematography and directing is breathtaking to look at, it’s hard to forget the underlying societal issues the film examines. Mixing images of the reality between African-Americans and the justice system within the direct storyline allows viewers to reflect on the images and ponder whether much has changed since the ‘70s.
It’s no secret that the topics of police brutality and violence against black men are prevalent. The character of Fonny, though fictional, reflects the real-life situations of many black men today, and the roles of Tish and their families represent those willing to stand up to the injustice.
If Beale Street Could Talk is an emotional, raw look at a deeply laced, institutional issue in America. Though a definite slow burn of a film, Jenkins makes viewers fall in love with the characters on screen and sympathize with their problems. It’s honest and brutal at times, but it’s a genuine look at the world we live in.