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If Beale Street Could Talk—a heartbreaking love story set in a deeply racist society

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Director Barry Jenkins’s new film delivers a powerful story about how the results of racism can poison the most beautiful parts of life
Issue 2641
Tish and Fonny must fight everything racist  US society throws at them
Tish and Fonny must fight everything racist US society throws at them

The flames of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were dying embers in 1974 when James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk.

The Harlem world he created was harsh. Racism was rife, and few now believed that things were going to change.

But Baldwin insisted that there could be warmth amid the gloom. Director Barry Jenkins’s new film of Beale Street captures that spirit beautifully.

Fonny (Stephan James) is a young man who brims with artistic ideas and plans for the future. In his decrepit basement flat he carves wood into works of art. To his family, he is a failure, a drop-out whose life is just a series of wrong turns.

But to his 19 year old fiancé Tish (Kiki Layne) he is everything. She takes his dreams and places them with her own.

Tish narrates us through their lives, from small children in the same neighbourhood to love-struck teenagers and young adults.

Together they plan a future, knowing all the time that the odds are stacked against them.

After months of looking for a flat to rent, but being continually knocked back by racist landlords, it appears the young couple have finally found somewhere to set up home.

But it seems like the shine has come off every hope Fonny has ever had.

After a run-in with a racist neighbourhood cop he is a marked man. Soon he is fitted up for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman on the other side of town.

And it is while he is in jail ­awaiting trial that Tish discovers she is pregnant.

It is then that the love Baldwin wrote of takes an expansive form.

The film can’t offer us a happy ending. For Fonny, and for thousands of others in jail today, that would be a fantasy

This is not simply a tale or romance, rather it is a plea for deep-seated humanism.Tish’s family and Fonny’s father form an unbreakable bond around her and throw their lives into trying to free her would-be husband.

The dads set about various criminal enterprises in a desperate bid to raise money for a good lawyer.

Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels to Puerto Rico to find the woman who accused Fonny of rape. The resulting encounter is horrific.

As the story unfolds the gap between the sumptuous cinematography, costumes and sets—and the harshness of black American life grows ever wider.

And what we are left with is a sense that Fonny and Tish’s dreams are out of reach, separated from them by a barrier.

Describing her regular jail visits, Tish says, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through a glass.”

In that sense, the young couple represent all the dashed hopes of the previous era.

Those who saw his earlier film—Moonlight—will know that Jenkins is a master of detail, and he rarely puts a foot wrong here.

The film can’t offer us a happy ending. For Fonny, and for thousands of others in jail today, that would be a fantasy.

And, while it offers hope in the form of human solidarity, it is nonetheless an utterly damning verdict on American racism.

If Beale Street Could Talk is on general release

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