If Beale Street Could Talk is about a young couple, Fonny and Tish, and the course of their relationship over time. When Fonny is wrongfully accused of raping a woman, we see the effect that his arrest takes on their relationship. The film goes back and forth in time from before Fonny’s arrest and after.
Intimacy on screen
The main focus of this film is the unconditional, everlasting love between Fonny and Tish. Their relationship is longing stares, shy smiles, sweet touches, and in each scene we see of them together, you can see the love that pours out of their souls. One of the scenes that exemplifies this the most is when two make love for the first time. The scene embodies those words and treats their act of love with the utmost delicacy. Jenkins positions the camera in a way that captures the movement of the scene while also keeping some things hidden.
The scene is little more than their shadows, the two lovers always making sure to look each other in the eyes as much as possible. It takes its time as the characters take their time. This allows the audience to sit in this love and feel it the same way Tish and Fonny do. This type of sex scene—where the sex itself is not what’s important. It’s the connection, the conversation, the learning, and understanding of one another’s bodies—is not often seen at all in the media, let alone between a Black couple.
Masculinity and fear
Aside from the main theme of love, most of this film centers around Fonny’s arrest. The second biggest theme this film presents is that of fear. More specifically, the fear of being a Black man in 1960’s White America. Black men do not have the luxury of expressing fear. The stereotypes attributed to them does not allow for that, or many other emotions, to be frank. To feel fear is to show weakness, and weakness is simply not an option. A Black man’s masculinity is measured only by his ability to be strong and to never break. To be afraid means that you are not a man. If Beale Street Could Talk works to go against that tired narrative.
There’s a scene in which Fonny runs into his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) and invites him to come over for dinner. The two chat over beers while Tish is prepping to cook. Daniel mentions that he recently got out of jail after 2 years for stealing a car. He didn’t steal the car, of course, but the charge was lower than that of a marijuana charge. Closeups fill the scene, going back and forth between Fonny and Daniel as Daniel speaks. Fonny tries to comfort him, but Daniel plainly explains that, while he appreciates the sentiment, he just doesn’t understand what it’s like. The scene’s tone shifts, and Daniel’s fear is clear. The pain in his words from the horrors he’s seen and experienced is enough to scare anyone.
Effects of trauma
Something that is not often addressed about the Black experience in America is the sheer amount of trauma that comes with it. People who aren’t Black, or Black people who simply haven’t experienced that type of hatred, often think very little of the impact these violent acts have on the victim. Daniel is a representation of that trauma and the brand that that kind of unspeakable racism leaves on people. Later, when Fonny himself is in prison, he begins to understand what Daniel was talking about. We see him become more and more beaten down with every visit that Tish pays him. In one instance, he lashes out, not out of anger, but out of fear. The audience never learns what happened to neither Daniel nor Fonny during their time in jail. But the implications given are enough to assume the worst.
The media does not portray the pain that comes with Black incarceration. This film, as well as Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us series, shed light on that side of the story. More often than not, the Black men that spend decades behind bars being abused and destroyed are men who either were never guilty in the first place or were guilty of crimes that called for little more than a misdemeanor charge.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that explores the depths of what Black emotion is. It showcases how Black emotion could and should be portrayed on screen. Centuries of suffering later, and we are still fighting to be shown as genuine, true human beings. My hope is that with films like these, we won’t have to fight for very much longer.