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If Beale Street Could Talk recognized that frank racial discussion is unavoidable

One scene in Barry Jenkins’ 2018 scorching James Baldwin adaptation speaks to the moment

Stephen James stares at camera as Fonny in If Beale Street Could talk Image: Annapurna Pictures

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Barry Jenkins once explained that his films are not escapist: “The world is on fire. So if you’re making a film and there’s not a quality to it that is a burning passion, a burning desire, then it’s not important.”

No one would ever confuse Jenkins’ cinematic love letters with Michael Bay’s explosive action flicks, or a Marvel Cinematic Universe intergalactic battle, or a Judd Apatow comedy, or a Disney cartoon. Instead, his characters are Black men and women working to avoid the unavoidable racist volatility of their surroundings. Like Chiron in 2016’s Moonlight, a gay Black boy fleeing from his homophobic abusers into the confines of a crackhouse, or Fonny wanting to emigrate to Europe in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, they can’t escape, physically or spiritually.

The February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the March police killing of Breonna Taylor, the weaponization of the police by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper (no relation), and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota police department all kicked off a national conversation around race that America has been trying to escape for decades. Amid widespread protests and public calls for change, American companies, national institutions, and pop-culture creators have spent the last few months finally exploring the products and consequences of historical racial inequalities, from prejudiced and deadly policing to the incentive appropriation of Aunt Jemima’s face.

While white America seems to be struggling with the difficulty of this conversation, Jenkins’ work suggests how inescapable it’s always been for the people it directly affects. For those who couldn’t escape the conversation, these aren’t new ideas. They’re a part of life. That’s what makes his films so vital in this moment, as a white audience begins to take Black conversations seriously.

From small talk to big topic

Photo: Annapurna Pictures

If Beale Street Could Talk feels especially timely right now, due to a sequence where two old friends open their shared wounds. The pain they express is familiar — Black people traditionally seek comfort for this kind of emotional injury among ourselves. (To the detriment of our mental health, we’ve also had to cyclically explain it to white Americans who, until recently, have mostly avoided such introspection.)

In Jenkins’ film adaption of James Baldwin’s searing novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Fonny (Stephen James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) are lovers separated by racist authorities after a woman falsely accuses Fonny of rape. Before that arrest, in the drama’s most evocative scene, Fonny spends some time catching up with his childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry).

Fonny first sees Daniel walking through the neighborhood, fresh from job hunting. From Daniel’s exhausted expression, it’s clear his search has been difficult. To avoid further rejection, Fonny pushes Daniel into a cab and they go to Fonny’s place, where they can relax into a calm private space. The pair share laughs, smokes, and beers, and escape into old memories and inside jokes.

This conversation between two young Black men starts out lighthearted, but it transitions into the dark, unavoidable subject of racism. While Fonny wants to enjoy Daniel’s familiarity, he doesn’t escape into nostalgia. Instead, he launches into his frustrations over trying to find someone who’ll rent an apartment to himself and Tish. He tells some horror stories about his apartment hunt, including one about a lasciviousness landlord who agreed to rent to Tish because he hoped she was propositioning him by applying for the place. That man backed out of the agreement when Fonny accompanied her later. Daniel reacts with nervous laughter. His chuckles aren’t just to soothe Fonny — he’s calming himself as well.

Their conversation is a microcosm of the larger dialogue around race — it’s difficult for most people to broach, but once fully encountered, it’s equally tough to look away. And the conversation gets at systemic issues that are bigger than two people chatting in an apartment — issues that haven’t disappeared since Baldwin originally wrote the novel.

The reality behind the fiction

Image: Annapurna Pictures

Fonny is referring to racist housing practices like redlining, where Blacks were segregated into less-regarded neighborhoods through the denial of loans. In his essay “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

This discrimination applied to renters, too. In 1973, the Justice Department sued Donald Trump and his father Fred over discriminatory renting practices, which adversely affected African-Americans: “By 1967,” the New York Times reports, “state investigators found that out of some 3,700 apartments in Trump Village, seven were occupied by African-American families.” As Fonny painfully says to Daniel, “This country really do not like n—s, man… They’ll rent to a leper before they rent to a n—.”

While Daniel listens to his friend vent, he’s also guarding against the seriousness of the conversation: taking more drags from his cigarette than Fonny, and speaking in sighs. Fonny breaks the tension when he says he wants to leave America, but he doesn’t know how yet, because “Tish can’t swim.” That joke defuses the gravity of the conversation through Baldwin’s uncanny ability to inject levity into even the dourest exchanges. But when Daniel suggests that Fonny leave America first, then send for Tish later, Fonny says he’s too scared to leave without her.

Currently, America is at a similar decision point about whether to move forward or stay paralyzed in place. Nearly every public office and private business is currently pledging to better confront their institutional inequities. But whether they succeed will come down to whether they’re willing to continue these open, painful conversations once the immediate public pressure has eased.

The pain runs deep

brian tyree henry in if beale street could talk Image: Annapurna Pictures

When Tish returns to their apartment, Jenkins resets the scene for the second part of Fonny and Daniel’s conversation, about the explicit trauma caused by a prejudiced criminal-justice system. Rather than sitting opposite from each other, Fonny and Daniel reposition themselves nearly side by side. With Tish relegated to preparing dinner in the kitchen, and the men in conversation, they’re practicing an outdated paternalism. The same occurs when Tish comes between Fonny and a racist cop, but Fonny orders her not to protect him. To Baldwin, Black women might escape harsher racial realities if protected by men and domestic toil, when in truth, they experience the brunt of the same pain.

As the sequence continues, Daniel admits to Fonny that he was recently released from jail. He can’t drive, but he falsely confessed to stealing a car to avoid the longer sentence associated with drug possession. The authorities’ legal manipulation cost him two years of his life.

Again, the film uses this intimate conversation between two individuals to get at a national problem. As Bryan Stevenson explains in a New York Times op-ed, “Hundreds of years after the arrival of enslaved Africans, a presumption of danger and criminality still follows black people everywhere […] Racial disparities in sentencing are found in almost every crime category. Children as young as 13, almost all black, are sentenced to life imprisonment for nonhomicide offenses.”

But while Fonny knows racism exists, he’s still unprepared for the type of oppression Daniel describes to him. Daniel himself seems unready, as he hesitantly wrenches the horrors concealed inside himself to Fonny. Tyree Henry provides several beats between each memory, and within those pockets of silence, Fonny struggles to take in Daniel’s experiences.

In Baldwin’s novel, Daniel and Fonny continue conversing about Daniel’s time in prison. Over multiple nights, the hurt Daniel guarded against fully revealing to Fonny is admitted in fearful detail. But Jenkins doesn’t depict these later moments. Instead, he only captures the first hangout, where so much is said but left unsaid. The filmmaker’s restraint articulates the difficulty of the discussion.

It isn’t easy to share the kind of trauma Daniel has experienced, any more than it’s easy to share the trauma modern America deals out to Black citizens via the media’s endlessly looping deaths captured on body-cam and cell-phone videos, or news of suspicious hangings breaking on Twitter. Daniel tries to express what he’s experienced, but confronting Black bodily harm requires the Black speaker and listener to make themselves vulnerable and risk their mental health for a white audience’s benefit. Because ostensibly, there’s a third, silent participant in the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, just as there’s a third participant in the painfully honest editorials written by Black writers and the videos of Black death circulating online — the white viewer.

The inescapable conversation

Image: Annapurna Pictures

About the white viewer: Cinematographer James Laxton employs only one camera during the conversation sequence, and relies on pans rather than cutting. The camera’s action loops three times during the scene, with Fonny serving as the starting point on each loop. The repetition of pans traps the camera’s lens inside the room. It also traps white viewers through both the camera’s hypnotic looping and the unguardedness of the conversation, forcing them to absorb the unavoidable hurt. As the camera repeatedly fixes its gaze on the slightly less aggrieved Fonny, then wavers back to Daniel’s broken image, the visual metaphor for Daniel’s PTSD and this inevitable racial discussion gains tension, deterring viewers from searching the room for escapist distractions.

In the past, when Black writers, creatives, and activists have undertaken the unenviable responsibility of expressing past racial grievances, white viewers have either opted out en masse, or escaped into their own comfortable, self-affirming culture, like Driving Miss Daisy or Green Book. In this scene, the hypnotic, repetitive camera movement and Tyree Henry’s deliberate performance lull the white members of the audience into remaining in the conversation. As Fonny, Daniel, and many other Black people have been expected to fix their gaze to this trauma, white people must now do the same when confronting their hand in police violence and institutional racism.

Still, a glaring question remains: What happens when public pressure on the white populace lessens? In If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel and Fonny’s near-inescapable melancholy is only broken by Tish announcing dinner. Nevertheless, after listening to Daniel’s memories, Fonny can’t shake what he’s heard.

After witnessing the footage of George Floyd’s death, or listening to the inexhaustible stories of racism in public office and private businesses, does white America, like Fonny, know that racial discussions are unavoidable? Or must African-Americans perpetually feel hopeless because our harshest traumas are not redressed, even after they’re laid bare?

If Beale Street Could Talk concludes with the near-permanent unjust imprisonment of Fonny, martyred by a malicious, overtly racist legal system. In current events, the martyrs are Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and the unreported Black victims of police killings not caught on video. African-Americans are frustrated counting the uncountable martyrs, while one side avoids the conversation we can’t avoid.

If white America embraces conversations regarding race in perpetuity, just as Black Americans and Daniel and Fonny must — if they continually broach the subject of racism instead of veering into escapist tendencies, no matter how difficult — then sustainable change is possible. The hangout scene in Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is a model for white America, a road map to confronting issues of inequality, and severing itself from its escapist detachment.

If Beale Street Could Talk is streaming on Hulu and is available for digital rental on Amazon, Vudu, and many other services.