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Looking at Beale Street Through Glass

By Howra Salaheddin

While explaining the movie adaption of the book director Barry Jenkins said “it’s a series of memories, dreams, and nightmares”. I think on one hand this is the best description of both the novel and the film and on the other, this is the best way to tell a love story. It’s not just the love between two people but the life of two people in love. 

The film takes its time explaining the life Tish and Fonny, starting by making sure we know they’re in love and building up to how they live with this love, how they’ve lived with it now, and how they will be living after all.

Jenkins makes us watch them as kids, so happy and carefree bathing together before very carefully and beautifully breaking our hearts with the reality. But neither Jenkins nor Baldwin ever treats this story as a sad tragic tale of love. This love gave the characters power and dreams and it took all the nightmares away. This love took them that far and damn it, it’ll take them where they’re supposed to be. I think that’s how they love in Beale Street

The magic in If Beale Street Could Talk is in how it’s told: as a story just like any other with the same ups and downs as Romeo and Juliet had. And there’s this ugly truth. This big injustice and the terrifying way they’ve to deal with it every day and neither one of Jenkins or Baldwin make it seem easy or too hard to handle. In a very scary way, that’s just how it is there.

In Tish and Fonny’s story, the obstacles vary. It’s like some of their problems are trivial, happen without any reason, and then there’s a country that has been deliberately constructed to stop you from achieving things that are promised to its white citizens. You have the angry mother-in-law that doesn’t approve of you and then you have a fiancé that’s been wrongfully accused of sexual assault because the white police officer wanted to. You have this earth-shattering conversation about your pregnancy and then your sister tells your sisters-in-law that nobody will ever fuck them. It’s beautiful and messy and it’s life. Life’s been unfair like that for a long time now.

Baldwin says “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” So I guess it’s safe to assume this story, Tish and Fonny’s, isn’t a big one-time tale after all. 

The film is shot like almost like a scrapbook. The moments together are dreamy. They have this soft haze and ethereal music in the background like everyone in the world exists, but just not in the same little universe as Tish and Fonny. 

The reality is harsh and the nightmares are abrupt and every time they come up they shook the audience. But then the memories appear. Tish and Fonny find each other in the dark and they hold on for a few moments. The soft music is back, and for a few minutes, everything is just okay again. It feels like you’re riding a train on crooked tracks: this is not how it should be. It should be a smooth ride, like all other train rides.

The way the camera looks at the characters makes us see them is the same honest way Baldwin writes. It’s who these characters are. Their fears, ambitions, and passion are real. These characters exist.

In prison, Fonny, who has never been scared of anything, is now is losing the two things that kept him sane, his art and Tish, and he’s terrified. He’s crying and the glass between him and Tish gets thicker. He never wanted her to protect him, he wanted to protect her. Tish who has to be brave for Fonny, for mama and daddy, for the baby and probably everyone in the world breaks, down in a law office. She feels helpless. She can’t protect him the way she wants to. These characters aren’t fictional, they’re living and breathing and fighting every day. That’s what Jenkins wants you to take away from his adaptation of Beale Street.

The world is so willing to take comfort, love, peace over truth. But we watch and read and keep on hearing because as Baldwin best said “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”  We hear Beale Street now, loud and clear and any time it needs our voice, we yell too because we’re our mother’s child. That’s the difference between the people of the world.


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