Barry Jenkins’ ‘Beale Street’ Delivers a Nuanced Depiction of the African-American Community (Guest Column)

KiKi Layne as Tish and Colman Domingo as Joseph star in Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

Every so often, a piece of art emerges that changes the game. Sometimes it is so subtle that it is missed in the moment. Years later, people look back and speak of that art as “a classic.” That is what we’re experiencing with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’ first film after his Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” It is the film that so many of us in the black community have been waiting for: a depiction of black life and black love, told unapologetically. A story of hope that is at once universal and also deeply specific.

Set in early 1970s Harlem, “Beale Street” is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

At its core, “Beale Street” is a story of love and resilience, of a familial community tested yet again by America’s reality, and resolving to rise above. Jenkins is a maestro who conducts emotions to a feverish crescendo and then eases them into a soulful denouement. But the ending, when it comes, is not wrapped with a pretty bow. One is left with a cacophony of feelings to unpack and process. How wonderful it is that art is still being created that makes us feel: Feel seen, feel loved, feel hurt, feel community.

Entertainment is experiential: We want to see, to hear, to feel. Many go to the movies for escapism. To sit in a darkened room and, if just for a couple of hours, not think about what is happening in the world just outside the exit doors. Jenkins takes us to the 1970s, to what seems like a simpler time. Yet we see the same struggles that we do today. Two working-class families attempting to provide a better life for their children. Racism and structural inequality preventing progress. A young couple in love and eager to start their life together. A mass incarceration system that is part of the legal system, but surely not the justice system, as it forces individuals to make impossible choices. As Jenkins said at a recent talkback, if the issues that you address in your work have yet to be resolved, they remain relevant, regardless of when the film is set. “We have caught up to Baldwin, not him catching up to us,” he said.

Color fills Jenkins’ work. Somehow, he makes us feel color, which I’ve never experienced before. In “Moonlight,” the film that won him the best picture and adapted screenplay Oscars in 2017, we were enveloped in blues and grays: the ocean, the sky, the uncertainty. In “Beale Street,” we are welcomed with hues of orange, yellow, green and brown. The colors were reminiscent of my family home in the 1970s; I could see the Tupperware on my mother’s kitchen counter. As Regina King — who won a Golden Globe for her role in the film and also nabbed an Oscar nomination — and Colman Domingo dance in their apartment, I remember my own parents two-stepping on our living room rug. And in those moments, you realize that this film isn’t just about Fonny and Tish, but also about people who easily could have been your relatives.

Jenkins’ most beloved color is black: the blackness of his characters. The blackness of their skin, their culture, their struggle. In a recent talkback after a Baltimore screening, Jenkins proudly proclaimed, “I prioritize melanin.” He was determined to stay true to Baldwin’s work by casting a darker-skinned black woman as Tish. Jenkins realized the importance of this casting because rarely do we see darker-skinned black women in lead roles. While your mind might immediately go to Viola Davis, she is truly the exception that proves the rule. Davis has spoken many times about how many of her roles, including her most recent turn as the lead in “Widows,” haven’t been written for black women, and certainly not darker-skinned black women.

One of the many beautiful things Jenkins does is direct his characters to stare squarely into the camera. In that moment, you find Fonny or Tish, looking at you, but also through you, beyond you. Jenkins was asked about these shots during the film’s promotional tour, and he explained that they require the audience to deal with the characters’ humanity, which we aren’t always emotionally able to do. In fact, for some non-black moviegoers, it may be the first time that they are forced to reckon with the humanity of black people, if only for a few seconds. We saw the same technique employed in “Moonlight” to great effect, and I’m hopeful that this is a Jenkins’ mainstay in future projects.

One of the most compelling scenes in “Beale Street” is between Fonny and Daniel Carty, played masterfully by Brian Tyree Henry. Danny speaks of having been recently incarcerated and what his existence was like on the inside. Yes, on a surface level one can see that this is clearly foreshadowing. But upon deeper introspection, Jenkins provides another glimpse into a facet of black life with which some may not be familiar. The 12-minute scene provides the opportunity for Danny to start the conversation by saying he’s “good.” As he and Fonny continue to talk and drink and smoke, Danny’s demeanor changes and the conversation transitions into “I’m good and …” and then “I’m good, but …” until finally Danny is able to fully open up and reveal “I’m actually not good.” It was necessary to give this scene time because, according to Jenkins, “Black men want to protect each other from the fear and trauma they’ve experienced unless there is time to peel back the layers.” Allowing these two black men to open up and share slowly, once they are confident that their thoughts will be heard and affirmed, to express emotion as fully as they are able without fear of ridicule, is simply revolutionary.

If there is one word to be used in describing “Beale Street” and, frankly, all of Jenkins’ films to date, it is nuance. There are subtle touches throughout that gently guide your understanding: the use of prayer in the final scene; the acceptance without shame of Tish’s pregnancy, Fonny slipping into allegory and emphatically telling Tish that he is building a table for his family. Jenkins respects his audience so much that he challenges their thought process without being condescending. Never are there easy answers, but part of the journey is examining the questions.

In a time when we have come to expect instant gratification, when words and images speed across a screen, “Beale Street” invites us to linger in a world that may not be our own, but feels familiar. It is a fitting tribute to the mastery that is James Baldwin, and a gift from Jenkins that he lovingly shares with the world. It is my hope that the industry recognizes and rewards this exquisite portrayal of African-American love, family and community through the lens of one of America’s most visionary filmmakers.

April Reign is the creator of the viral hashtag-turned-movement #OscarsSoWhite, and advocates and consults on all matters related to diversity, inclusion and representation.