Three very different films released in 2018 address racism from unique perspectives. Two are based on real events and the third is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Each film also won at least one Oscar at February’s Academy Awards.
Set in the early 1970s, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a quintessential Baldwin story about poverty, race, family, and love. The film is directed by Barry Jenkins, director of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Moonlight.” Regina King received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her strong portrayal of the mother of the story’s young heroine, Tish.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are a young black couple living in Harlem who fall in love and find themselves expecting their first baby. But Baldwin’s complex story doesn’t end there. At a time when a young couple awaiting their first child should be excited and anxiously preparing for the birth, the realities of one’s identity mars that anticipation.
As fate would have it, Fonny is wrongly arrested for the alleged rape of a young Puerto Rican woman. A white policeman known for his racist attitudes makes the arrest. While Fonny is lingering in jail awaiting trial, Tish, her mother and sister try to fight for Fonny’s freedom but it is an uphill battle. For one, the Puerto Rican woman who was brutally raped is not to be found. Second, the one witness, a young African American who can verify that Fonny was nowhere near where the scene of the rape, is also arrested on questionable charges. As a result, Fonny remains in prison while hoping for a quick resolution of his case — a fairly standard experience for black men in Harlem of that time.
Baldwin was gifted in portraying the challenges of the American working class black family struggling to survive, economically and emotionally, recognizing how tenuous life could be when you were black and fighting a system bent on ensuring you did not succeed. It is clear that fighting racism and racist attitudes is an uphill battle for Tish and Fonny. Young black men knew if they were arrested for crimes they did not commit, they could linger in prison for years with some even dying there at worst or learning destructive lifestyles at best. The longer Fonny is incarcerated, the more he begins to accept the inevitable. Tish, though, is relentless.