Critic's Notebook: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Is an Important Invitation to Feel Black Pain

Stephan James in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.'

In 2018, African-American filmmakers like Spike Lee, George Tillman Jr. and especially Barry Jenkins brought viewers deep inside the dehumanization of black and brown bodies.

We are a nation divided by the pain stemming from the state terror of police brutality on one side and the privilege to be utterly incognizant of that pain on the other. Black creatives bear witness to this fracture as it is felt in black communities, and together their work has produced a collective project 400 years in formation. 

In 2018, a wide array of art offered the most recent iterations of this ongoing project. In the context of #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite, filmmakers, authors and Broadway producers are giving the nation an opportunity: Remain divided or use art as a portal through which constructive discourse can begin on the topics of race, policing and the dehumanization of black and brown bodies. With films like If Beale Street Could Talk (coming out Dec. 14 after making the fall festival rounds), BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give — as well as novels like An American Marriage and plays like American Son — black creatives this year have done more than raise issues for discussion: They have invited us, everyone in this country, to feel.

The filmmakers George Tillman Jr. and Barry Jenkins, especially, have African-American moviegoers crying like we are in church. The tears are quiet, like these captured in the 1973 documentary Wattstax. Emotional responses to big-screen images of police terror come from a deep well, one that was dug all those centuries ago. People wonder why the black church is so powerful, so necessary and so full of spiritual energy that congregants literally quake. The reason is this: Black folk have been through hell. But we have also been back.

Mothers held their daughters and sons close and, I can testify, wept as they watched Tillman’s adaptation of the best-selling YA novel The Hate U Give. In the film, a beautiful, smiling brown boy felled by police bullets shudders and transforms into a corpse. In that and other powerful scenes, centuries of pain surface. The protagonist, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), contains this pain as she traverses the all-white school she commutes far from her Garden Heights neighborhood to attend. But this child just witnessed the murder of her childhood friend. In a stunning encounter that foreshadows the fervent tension of a Garden Heights protest, Starr’s bottled-up anxiety explodes. No longer content to quietly manage the microaggressions that silence her authentic voice, Starr flips, assuming the posture of an aggressive male police officer, and forces her white friend to cower like a black body under siege. She shows her white friend why we say “Black Lives Matter.” For just a moment, her white friend feels the fear that grips black people. This is no catharsis, however, and when Starr walks away, her tears fall down a face that is still tense.

When Starr’s catharsis does occur, she is in her own community. She speaks, finally, telling her truth through a megaphone that amplifies her voice. The crowd quietly listens, then joins her in proclaiming the sanctity of black life. Tears fall in this scene, too. Starr’s sadness lingers.

This same haunting sorrow will surely rise from the collective consciousness of black viewers when they watch Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin classic If Beale Street Could Talk. As was the case in the director’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, Beale Street is meditative, sepia-toned and lovely. The story centers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), but one of the film’s most elegant scenes includes a third character, Daniel (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). Tish runs to the grocery store, and while she’s out the two men share a few beers, cigarettes and memories. The camera lingers on these two beautiful black men’s eyes, lips, noses and cheeks as they listen to each other in the soft light of a Harlem basement. In their brown hands, beer bottles take the form of sacred vessels holding consecrated wine. This Eucharist does not symbolize the blood from Jesus’ crucified body but instead the blood spilled by black bodies caught in a different passion, in a uniquely American crucifixion.  

Fonny and Daniel talk. Like an elegy, a lamentation, a dirge, they speak, weep, gaze into their glasses and into each other as they contemplate their lot in this America. “But man,” Fonny says with a quiet force no printed page can accurately capture, “this country really do not like n—ers.” As they communicate their terror, audiences are invited to sit at the table with them and hear, from black men, the experience of black male incarceration. “But you don’t know,” Daniel says to Fonny, to us, “the worst thing, man, that worst thing, is that they can make you so fucking scared. Just … scared, man.”

This is not the first time, nor the second, that the word scared rises from their conversation. That fear — it is terror. It gets inside them, reverberates and makes Tish, who has returned from the store and overhears them, shake.

This space that Fonny and Tish have fashioned into an almost-home is a firetrap, as Fonny says several times, and so it is also a microcosm. Black folk stay trapped, held back by tense wire that will shock the shit out of anyone who dares to lean against it or imagine life on the other side.

Fonny does lean, and looks for an affordable apartment outside their Harlem community. A white male predator stalks Tish in that neighborhood and compels Fonny’s righteous outrage. A circle of multiethnic witnesses gathers to protect Fonny from the racist police officer ready to drag him to jail, even though the perpetrator who assaulted Tish runs away as soon as the policeman arrives. Fonny escapes persecution in that scene, but the cop remembers Fonny and later incarcerates him on a false charge of rape that would be ironic if false charges of rape against African-American men weren’t so persistent in real life.

Both The Hate U Give and Beale Street build on the momentum generated by Ava DuVernay's Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary 13th (2016), and do so with an intimacy consistent with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 Sundance breakout Fruitvale Station. These films tackle the tension that grips black families when young African-American men are either caged or killed by the police. Beale Street concludes with a montage of images that connect Fonny and Tish’s singular story to a multiplicity of stories over the timeline DuVernay’s doc covered with such precision. Like Coogler, Tillman and Jenkins turn their lenses on the families who love these young men, along with the communities that swirl into action to protect them — or protest for them.

It does matter that the male characters in both Jenkins' Beale Street and Tillman's Hate are innocent. Similarly, the incarcerated black male protagonist in Tayari Jones' best-selling 2018 novel An American Marriage, which Oprah Winfrey is reportedly turning into a movie, is also innocent and tormented by a system that won’t let him go. These artists are seeking a conversation that centers black experiences as American experiences. Perhaps the opportunity to literally set the stage for this dialogue is what encouraged so many African-Americans in sports and entertainment to sign on to produce the recent Broadway production American Son, starring Kerry Washington. To contradict the history of misrepresentation that perpetually reinforces the stereotype of the predatory black male (a history that started in American filmmaking with The Birth of a Nation), our shining humanity must emerge. And we need that shine to shimmer.

The powerful finale to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman links white-sheet domestic terrorism to the White House. This link is cast in iron, so there is no stretch in it. Following the Charlottesville car attack that killed Heather Heyer, Trump explicitly drew a moral equivalence between American Nazis and the multihued Americans who protested them. And never forget that our American president has refused to retract his public statement calling for the execution of five children: The Central Park Five, all Black and Latino, were wrongfully incarcerated, as the Ken Burns PBS film of that same name documents. Trump rallied the state to kill those boys, and to this day has never apologized for doing it. This fact only heightens the need for black creative voices to offer a counter-narrative to the mainstream discourse that criminalizes black and brown people.

Black creatives are inviting audiences into the black households, into the black bodies, that shudder and groan under the weight of dispossession compelled by racial inequities in American policing. We are wailing, in theaters and in our communities. We are wailing in a prison industrial complex that profits from our incarceration. But we do more than grieve: In these projects, redemption is achieved via the survivors who remember and tell, who bear witness and persevere in the pursuit of American justice.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of a novel, Crystelle Mourning. Her essays examining African-American culture have been widely anthologized and she has contributed to Essence, The Washington Post, Ebony and The Los Angeles Review of Books.