Try a Little Tenderness: Love in Barry Jenkins’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018)
“If you’ve trusted love this far, trust it all the way”
Barry Jenkins is often celebrated for his brilliance of capturing intimacy, depicting moments of authentic sensitivity and rehumanising Black people — the historic “Other”. The filmmaker’s most recent cinematic release If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) — also referred to as Beale Street — is an adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name. Jenkins uses the film to illustrate the complexities of love and hate experienced by Black communities in early-1970s Harlem. The story follows the nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (played by KiKi Layne) as she struggles to free her lover — and father of her unborn child — Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) from wrongful imprisonment. Jenkins’ adaptation is a testament to the resilience of Black love. It is distinctly countercultural, serving as a form of Black resistance against a white, homogeneous industry. With Baldwin’s heart-wrenching imagery translated onto the screen, the horrors of anti-Black racism and police violence are detailed. However, the story is also one of love, highlighting the redemptive powers of the emotion. Nicholas Britell centralises the feeling through his score and its composition titles. ‘The Four Loves’ according to Christian philosophy and Ancient Greek language — Agape, Eros, Philia, Storge — are referenced (as detailed in Lewis, 1960). These shall guide the paper’s scene analyses, serving as four sub-titles. Beneath each, this essay shall detail how Jenkins rehumanises the film’s Black characters through manifestations of love in these forms.
Contextualising this paper within the discourse of Black resistance filmmaking, I briefly discuss the work of artists such as Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay. Modern forms of Black resistance have exemplified the importance of the camera. Digital technology is a necessary agent of organising in the 21st century and has been used for cop-watching, exposing the monstrosity of police violence. Jenkins’ film portrays these atrocities but does not reduce itself to ‘trauma porn’. Instead, the filmmaker illustrates the complexities of Black life by framing a series of snapshots from Tish and Fonny’s lives. There is pain, racism, and injustice, but most importantly there is heart, soul, and warmth. Beale Street and other features directed by Black filmmakers highlight the importance of ‘Black spectatorship’.
Diawara’s work ‘Black Spectatorship’ (1993) sets out to explore the relationship between “Black spectators” and “resisting spectators”. Revisiting previous theories which have excluded Black people from their analysis, the author criticises the white exclusivity of film theory. Diawara’s essay recognises the necessity of resistance and counter-images for Black film audiences. Similar observations are discussed in hooks (1992) through her essay titled ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’. ‘The Oppositional Gaze’ emphasises the intersectionality of Black female identities and acknowledges how Black male filmmakers may still exert their patriarchal powers within their art. Hooks’ work is reiterated in Diawara (1993), with both texts recognising the importance of racial/gendered/sexual difference when reading films. Although Jenkins is a Black male — and may inherently create work for audiences of the same identity — I believe his film to be feminist, offering a positive and in-depth portrayal of Beale Street’s Tish. As a Black female spectator myself, I am keen to examine the representations of the protagonist and Fonny, exercising my critical eye to contest white, patriarchal images (hooks, 1992, p. 130).
Building upon Diawara (1993) and hooks’(1992) theories of resistant spectatorship, this essay applies similar ideas to If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). In doing so, this paper details the subversive depictions of Black people in Jenkins’ film, celebrating his re-presentation of Blackness — a reclamation of his own identity. Through textual analysis, I evaluate Jenkins’ attempts to rehumanise Black people onscreen, predominantly through illustrations of love/loving, and assess the power of Black spectatorship as a form of resistance.
Film as a Tool of Black Resistance
Gates (2017) details the racial bias of film technology and explains how film stocks have been designed to optimise lighter skin tones. Racial discrimination being so deeply entrenched within the medium emphasises the dominating whiteness of the industry. The text then develops, arguing that photographing a Black person is a political act. However, the critical works of Nesteby (1982), Diawara (1993), and hooks (1992) raise the importance of questioning how Black people are presented onscreen. Including Black faces may not be enough to be deemed resistance. Nesteby (1982) elaborates on this detailing how white people’s portrayals of Black characters often support cultural myths, reproducing negative imagery. Oppression, erasure, and stereotyping are forcibly intertwined aspects of Black experience. Written out of history and viciously distorted where we have been acknowledged, rarely have Black people seen ourselves on screen. There may have been people who resembled our appearances — Poitier, McDaniel, etc. — but depictions of us as autonomous individuals are scarce.
Frantz Fanon stated, “every spectator is a coward or a traitor” (1968, cited in Diawara, 1993, p. 219). Whether this is a criticism of passive spectatorship, susceptible to consuming dominant readings of media, or whether Fanon is critical of all consumers, believing they should create their own work is disputable. However, both interpretations are of value. The importance of critical spectatorship and creations of resistance are exemplified through the work of Black filmmakers and theorists such as Spike Lee, Manthia Diawara, and bell hooks.
Arguably the first Black filmmaker to use his work to address issues of anti-Black racism and the impacts of over-policing, Lee must be celebrated. The artist uses the medium to re-present Blackness, creating artefacts of counter-culture such as Do the Right Thing (1989) (Gibson-Hudson, 1992). Whilst he has spent a large portion of his career as the sole Black filmmaker in radical and independent cinema, Lee has encouraged the work of countless others. Social commentary and resistance films are becoming more frequent. Anti-Black racism, police violence, and injustice are detailed in Ava DuVernay’s mini-series When They See Us (2019) and her documentary 13th (2016).
Viewing If Beale Street Could Talk in a contemporary context prompts audiences to reflect on present race-relations. Police brutality and video/film are becoming increasingly intertwined, demonstrated through the thoughtless resharing of murders on social networking sites and growing number of films detailing such atrocities. The summer of 2020 saw the murder of George Floyd thoughtlessly reshared across platforms, dehumanising the victim. Similar instances of police brutality, such as the killing of Oscar Grant, were also caught on camera, with bystander footage posted to YouTube (Antony and Thomas, 2010). Ryan Coogler then directed Fruitvale Station (2013) which depicted the life of Grant, rehumanising the Black man. The virality of Black people’s deaths is a materialisation of white supremacist attitudes; racism and colonialism has resulted in Black people’s lives being deemed less valuable than others’.
However, as detailed above, Black filmmakers are using their work to resist such imagery.
“One of the roles of Black independent cinema, therefore, must be to increase spectator awareness of the impossibility of an uncritical acceptance of Hollywood products” (Diawara, 1993, p. 219).
Telling their own stories, directors such as Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, and Ava DuVernay use their films to depict the impacts of over-policing and racism on Black communities. Black filmmakers create art that, both, acknowledges the impacts of racism and oppression yet also highlights Black people’s joy and individuality, providing realistic portraits of the community. In doing so, Black filmmakers exert their production power challenging colonial stereotypes, focalising Black spectatorship. The films of these directors and Jenkins avoid the excessive exploitation of Black trauma whilst recognising the pain that comes with it.
Black Spectatorship and The Oppositional Gaze
Diawara’s text ‘Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance’ (1993) details the importance of challenging dominant filmic ideology. The author states that “the components of ‘difference’ — i.e. race, gender, sexuality — “give rise to different readings of the same material” (p. 212). They reiterate the subjectivity of film, encouraging readers to exercise critical thought and assess depictions of marginalised people. Diawara’s chapter applies theories of resistant spectatorship to films made by white directors — such as The Birth of a Nation (directed by D. W. Griffith, 1915) and The Color Purple (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1986) — and discusses the dominant (harmful) readings and representations they elicit. The majority of popular cinema is influenced by white supremacist ideas; when Black people are presented onscreen — a rarity in itself — they are stereotyped and often reduced to “Other”. Consistently oppressed and presented as “losers”, Black spectators are denied the “pleasures” experienced by white audiences:
“In terms of the Oedipal analogy in the structure of such narrative patterns, the Black male subject always appears to lose in the competition for the symbolic position of the father or authority figure.”
(Diawara, 1993, p. 216)
Hall (et al., 1997) elaborates on this, offering insight into the colonial historical which has informed negative ideas of Black people. In his work, he explains how the repercussions of master-slave relations have led to harmful stereotypes of Black masculinity; the over-sexing and castration of Black men has resulted in them being deemed “sexually insatiable”, but also infantilised (Hall et al., 1997, pp. 262–263). Diawara (1993) also dissects these ideas. Unpacking connotations of the Black male as evil, the author details the pattern of Black men being depicted as rapists, as seen in The Birth of a Nation and The Color Purple (p. 217). Although untrue, a forced accusation of the same crime is also what leads to Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment in Beale Street. Whilst the injustice may reproduce ideas of Black men as ‘losers’, its narrative purpose is to detail the horrors of anti-Black racism in 70s America. Furthermore, within the feature, an array of emotions is experienced by the characters. Loss and pain do not overpower the storyline. Love, joy, bravery, and determination are also evident — the characters are given depth, the narrative is balanced and realistic.
Hooks (1992) discusses ‘Black spectatorship’, but also specifies the importance of ‘Black female spectatorship’. Whilst Black male filmmakers may present Black men in a more favourable way, their patriarchal power can distort their constructed images of Black women. Even within the work of Black male filmmakers, Black women have continually been stereotyped (hooks, 2014; Warren, 2018). Wallace (1990, in Massood, 2007) details this issue by identifying the ‘Jezebel’ stereotype in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). ‘Jezebel’ refers to a morally unrestrained, often promiscuous, woman. The term highlights how Black women are sexualised. Black girls can be deemed to be sexual simply through their acts of play; Black girls are viewed to lack “control over their sexual behaviour or displays of sexuality” (Gaunt, in Adjaye and Andrews, 1997, p. 157). Such ideas are also evident within cinema. Black women are typically deemed threatening and uncivilised when they demonstrate behaviours of sexual agency (Massood, 2012). In Lee’s film, Nola, who is carefree and has multiple sexual partners, is eventually ‘punished’ for having too much fun. After her refusal to marry him, “solid, average” Jamie “rapes Nola into submission” (Wallace, in Massood, 1997, p.25). Such one-dimensional, reductive representations reinforce the need for the Black male gaze to be interrogated. As victims of misogynoir, the intersectionality of Black women’s identities informs our interpretations of films and their characters. Terming this “the oppositional gaze”, hooks speaks of Black women’s spectatorial power and how it may “change reality” (pp. 288–289). Black women’s critical eye contests white, patriarchal images, allowing opportunity for “new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (p. 130). I exercise my crticial eye as a Black female spectator, evaluating Jenkins’ depiction of Tish and other characters in Beale Street.
Rehumanising Blackness Through Depictions of Love in If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins describes If Beale Street Could Talk as a series of “dreams, memories and nightmares” (Jenkins, in Mantgani, 2019, p. 1). This atmosphere is established through the work of the small filmmaking collective Jenkins has established through his features, and most recently TV series, The Underground Railroad (2021). With Jenkins’ careful direction, the ethereal cinematography of James Laxton, Nicholas Britell’s agonisingly beautiful score and an assured voiceover from Tish, the film is an artefact of poetic realism. Despite Beale Street’s woeful weight of police violence, injustice, and racism, it is uplifted with continual displays of love. The gravity of the emotion is emphasised through Britell’s score, with composition titles alluding to the four forms of love from Christian scripture — Agape, Eros, Storge, and Philia. The recognition that Black people may experience such variety within the singular term ‘love’ alone serves as an act of defiance against the oppressive, reductive ideologies encouraged by white supremacy.
Agape love is recognised as being “divine” or “unconditional”. “It desires the common good, resistance to injustice, and restoration of the beloved community” (Cherry, 2019, pp. 2–3). The form of love is further described in King (2015) as “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return” (p. 58).
The first time Tish and Fonny’s love is spoken of it is depicted through a montage [00:13:55–00:15:15]. The sequence highlights the extent of the pair’s connection, with the clips illustrating different stages of their relationship. Britell’s composition Agape swells beneath Tish’s narration: “the day I realised Fonny was in love with me was strange. It was the day he gave mama that sculpture”. The camera pans slowly upwards towards where Tish stands dressed in pale yellow and shades of white on her top doorstep. Her positioning and clothing depict her as ethereal, a cream cape hanging over her shoulders, as though she is a winged angel. The audience then see Fonny from her perspective, looking past her mother’s shoulder up at her. Tish is spotlighted as a vision of divine purity, with this emphasised through her voiceover: “I don’t remember that we ever had any curiosity concerning each other’s bodies. Fonny loved me too much…” [00:14:26–00:14:35]. The quote reiterates King’s (2015) interpretation of agape love; Fonny’s feelings for Tish are not reliant on her reciprocating. The two are comparable to Adam and Eve. Raised together, they have baptised each other in bubble-baths, and are “flesh of each other’s flesh…”, alluding to Genesis 2:23 [00:14:42–00:14:47]. The neighbourhood of Harlem is their Garden of Eden, the place in which their entire lives play out. (This is also implied through the first track of the score Eden (Harlem) (Britell, 2018).) Representing Fonny and Tish as biblical characters of innocence provides a stark contrast to traditional images of Black men and women. Diawara (1993) states that “evil and lust are attributed to the Black man and the Black woman alike” and criticises the absence of Black female / Black male relationships in cinema (p. 218). The comparison of the lovers in Beale Street to the Bible’s ‘first man’ and ‘first woman’ is a transgressive action that disestablishes colonial ideas of Black people as savage and animalistic (Hall et al., 1997). In alluding to Adam and Eve, Jenkins’ presents Tish and Fonny as immeasurably human, immeasurably sacred.
Agape is also depicted through the support of other marginalised communities in Harlem. Jewish allies support Tish and Fonny throughout the film challenging other white oppressors. An original addition to Baldwin’s story is the loft scene in which Levy (Dave Franco) follows Fonny’s humorous roleplay [01:04:40–01:07:26]. The scene sees the two men speak of what could be, both motivated by the American Dream. As Fonny begins to describe the layout of their future home, the camera follows his gesture. It sweeps around the building, emphasising the emptiness of its interior. Eventually it orbits back towards the characters, framing them in a wide shot, until Fonny continues — “we could put a table right here” [01:05:55–01:05:59]. Laxton’s camera hovers above the man’s hands, encouraging audiences to visualise furniture in the space. The cinematography encourages empathy from audiences, involving them in the scene. Excluded from opportunities of social progress, Black people are often trapped in cycles of poverty. Where dominant white readings of such a scenario may presume that this would lead Black men to states of despair, Jenkins highlights Fonny’s optimism and the solidarity of the community.
The scene also reemphasises Tish’s sanctity; following their furniture act, Fonny says, “What a man wouldn’t do for love ‘ey Levy?”, to which the man responds, “Amen.”. As Levy speaks, the audience sees a shot of Tish in which she is framed in front of large windows, the sunlight surrounding her [01:07:00–01:07:06].
Eros traditionally refers to passionate, romantic love and is the origin of the word ‘erotic’. Butorac (2018) references the work of Shulman (2008) and states that, for Baldwin, eros love is “a sensual coming together… implying a moment of intimacy and dissolution of boundaries between two subjects” (p. 719).
The composition titled Eros complements the scene in which Tish and Fonny make love; opening with a solo violin melody and tremolo string accompaniment, the timbre evokes feelings of nervousness and represents the vulnerability of the lovers [00:29:00–00:29:12]. Dynamics slowly rise from piano to piano-forte and a harmony is heard as the two enter Fonny’s basement. The music emulates a sense of togetherness. The compatibility of Tish and Fonny is further emphasised through the layering of countermelodies — the score weaves in and out of itself, dissolving the boundaries between the two (Butorac, 2018, p. 719). The scene is slow-paced, and the two mirror each other. Laxton captures their side profiles in a medium shot, highlighting the privacy of the moment. They remove their white clothes as the virginal Tish prepares for her first time [00:30:00–00:31:06]. Assessing the scene from a Black feminist perspective as hooks (1992) encourages, the portrayal of Tish provides an empowering image of Black women and sexuality. Although Fonny begins undressing her, he only removes outer layers of her clothing, preserving her agency. Tish then removes her own top and Fonny follows her lead, implying that she is in control. As the two begin to make love, the woman is not overly-sexualised, but framed with respect. The lighting is realistic, with dark shadows protecting the lovers’ bodies. Moreover, the character being a virgin also counters the Jezebel stereotype associated with Black women; it is implied that Fonny is the only man Tish makes loves with in her life. As the man she loves and hoped to marry, Tish remains faithful to herself and her lover.
Philia refers to a sense of brotherly love and may describe the emotional bond between close friends. This form of love is most evident in Fonny’s interactions with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) who embodies the characteristics of an older brother. Daniel’s character is simultaneously one of comic relief and honest realism. Shifting from a slow, close pan of Fonny at the table, Daniel jokes about the artist’s sculpture interrupt the pace of the scene, with a wide shot capturing his full body [00:45:56–00:46:30]. Soon after, his affable nature fades, with his statement “I just got out the slammer…” and story about his imprisonment [00:51:25–00:52:25]. Miles Davis’ Blue in Green soundtracks the scene; a staple of Black culture, it highlights the familiarity between the two men, emphasising the warmth and love shared between the Black community. The absence of original score adds to the verisimilitude of the conversation, Davis’ song being diegetic. The intensity of the sequence is emphasised through the cinematography, with it slowly panning between the two. Tish returns, offering a moment of light relief, and the men soon continue their conversation. Dark shadows now loom with Daniel’s body consumed, yet Fonny remains softly lit by a low glow. The hum of the score returns as Daniel speaks, his voice trembling “When you in there, they can do with you whatever they want.” The medium close-up of Daniel draws viewers to his eyes and the character appears haunted, evoking further fear of Fonny’s fate [00:53:18–00:55:00]. The climax of scene comes with a close-up on the older man’s face and rising dynamics in the score as his voice breaks — “they can make you so fucking scared, Fonny” [00:55:26–00:56:08]. Audiences are trapped within the intense moment, confronted with Daniel’s pain, until Tish soft voice frees them. Fonny and Daniel quickly switch, as though the conversation were a light-hearted catch-up and Nina Simone’s voice fills the room.
Although he is one of the most mistreated and abused characters in the film, Daniel exudes warmth and humility. The portrayal of the character highlights the resilience of Black men. He is able to laugh and express sensitivity even during moments of anguish. In Beale Street, Black men are not the devil, it is white men who are. Dissecting portrayals of Black men in the film further, Corber (2019, p. 185) critiques Jenkins’ adaptation, claiming he misread the author’s commentary on the maladies of Black masculinity. Baldwin’s novel details Frank Hunt’s (Fonny’s father) struggle with patriarchal pressures — he is sadly consumed and pained to the point of suicide. Jenkins’ Beale Street omits this aspect of the story; detailing Frank’s experiences may have presented further resistance to dominant readings of Black men and highlighted the toxicity of patriarchal structures. On the other hand, including such a distressing scene may have shifted the balance of the film, catering to dominant audiences by presenting more Black trauma than necessary.
Storge love encapsulates the platonic affection and bond between family; it is understood as natural and may be felt between parents and children. Tish’s mother, Sharon Rivers (Regina King), embodies the form of love. This is emphasised through the composition Storge scoring her arrival in Puerto Rico. Sharon is central in the frame, with a dolly zoom depicting her strength and love for her daughter and Fonny. Her costume in this scene accentuates her maternal love; Tish and Fonny are associated with a blue and yellow colour palette throughout the film, depicting their unbreakable attachment and green is often used when they are apart. The mother wears an emerald green top and the headscarf from the day Tish realised Fonny loved her, depicting her bond with the two [01:26:32–01:26:50]. The colour also alludes to life and fruitfulness in Christianity, highlighting her motherly devotion to her children. Hooks’ (1992) ideas of Black female spectatorship are relevant in the sequence. King looks directly into the camera as she fixes her appearance, suggesting the audience to be a mirror [01:28:18–01:29:20]. Viewers are face to face with Sharon, caught in her gaze as she begins to appear distressed, crying and removing her wig. It is a private moment in which the mother who has been presented as strong throughout, is granted the opportunity to be vulnerable. Placing audiences in her position of ‘Black mother’ is a radical act in cinema and implies that this film is intended for Black audiences — we are reflected, not white viewers.
Jenkins’ staple is his use of close-ups in which the actors look directly into the camera lens, as he does in this scene. The artistic decision captivates audiences and invites them into the most intimate moments. Again, this symbolises Black resistance in cinema; Jenkins breaks one of the so-called ‘rules of filmmaking’. Allowing his actors to do so implies a sense of self-awareness from the characters as they are centred in the cinematic universe. This act captures the autonomy of Black storytelling, as if Jenkins is saying ‘These are our own stories. We are the writers. We are the protagonists.’ Whilst the film may be fictional, its story is rooted in the realities of Black experience. The novel and the film are created for Black readers and spectators. It is a story that belongs to us. The film opens with a quote from the novel, emphasising this:
“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy. Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”
(Baldwin, 1974; Jenkins, 2018) [00:00:30–00:01:00]
If Beale Street Could Talk is a creation of resistance, capturing the warmth and horror of what it means to be Black.
Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) provides an intimate portrait of two lovers and the atrocities of racism and police-violence in 70s Harlem. Through his ability to capture the beauty of Blackness and the trauma that may come with its oppression, Jenkins carefully crafts complex characters, aligning with his established style of poetic realism. The three artists closest to Beale Street (Baldwin, Jenkins, and their character of Fonny) each embody a sense of tenderness — a characteristic seldom associated with Black men. It is for this reason that the translation of the novel to the screen is so successful. Black people are rehumanised through his depictions, capable of experiencing an array of emotions despite the saddening material. Interpreting Beale Street as a love story above anything else, this essay details manifestations of the emotion in four forms — agape, philia, storge and eros. Through textual analysis, this paper has demonstrated how love between Black people can be deemed a form of resistance against white hegemonic ideas, challenging racist perceptions. Although the film may present Fonny as a ‘loser’ in its narrative, with the man forced to take a plea, it is realistic and necessary to illustrate the mistreatment of Black people. The devastating result of the ordeal represents the extensive impacts of anti-Black racism on Black communities, knowing that Fonny is innocent evokes sympathy for the character. “Such an ending prevents viewers from dismissing the film’s portrayal of racist policing as a relic of the past by alluding to its continuation into the present.” (Corber, 2019, p. 186). Yet, despite this upset, there is also optimism in the finale. Tish and Fonny are still together — their love overpowering the racist society they are trapped in — and the family of three await Fonny’s release.
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If Beale Street Could Talk — Original Score. Composed by Nicholas Britell. [Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/0fJDCdcog8975mFnYSCKZT?si=SoC-mLuITVWhH9-lT2grvw] Lakeshore Records, (2018)