On Barry, Baldwin and the Black Female Narrative In ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
When it comes to cinema —and with mainstream films, in particular, Black women aren’t often the narrators of their own stories. In those rare cases when we are the main subjects in narratives about Black love or the Black experience, we are gagged and bound —relegated to filler material, helpmate roles or figures who solely exist for the male gaze. James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk refuses to place this injustice on Black women and with his film adaptation of the stunning work, director Barry Jenkins quiets other voices so that the Black female voice can soar.
If Beale Street Can Talk is love ablaze. The narrative follows 19-year-old Tish Rivers (portrayed by Kiki Layne), and her childhood best friend turned lover, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (portrayed by Stephan James) who become enchanted in their romance. Tragically, just as they begin to plot for the future, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and thrown into prison. Set in Harlem during the 1970s Jenkins’ film sweeps gently between the past and the present as Tish struggles to press forward seeking to clear Fonny’s name while growing their child in her belly.
Though Fonny is the one who must directly contend with the injustices of the American penile system— it's Tish and the women around her — her mother Sharon (Regina King) and older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) who feel the gut-wrenching after-effects of his imprisonment. It's these three women who band together on Fonny’s behalf, enacting a plan of attack to find a lawyer and get his accuser to recant. There is an overarching thread of Black feminism in the film. Though men— namely Fonny and Tish’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach respectively) take action in the background, the women propel things forward in the foreground. It’s Sharon who dries Tish’s eyes as she weeps alone at night and travels to Puerto Rico in search of Fonny's accuser. It's Ernestine who uses her connections to secure a lawyer on Fonny's behalf.
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