Entertainment

How 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Shows the Power of Black Portraiture

if beale street could talk
Annapurna Pictures

More than 150 years before Barry Jenkins transformed James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk into a masterclass on filming faces, Hiram Charles and Elizabeth Montier posed for their portraits -- the earliest known portraits of a black American couple.

In his portrait, Hiram, a descendant of Philadelphia's first mayor, dons a wide-collared overcoat and brown vest that hardly contains his ascot, which is neatly adorned with a silver flower-pendant. By contrast, Elizabeth, whose family had been free since the early 1700s, wears gold. Her understated two-chained cross sits above a lace-topped gown, decorated with a pink shawl and boasting regal puffed sleeves. Both sit in the foreground of velvet drapes, painted as proclamation of wealth.

In 1841, when some Pennsylvanians still owned slaves and decades before the American Civil War erupted, it was radical for two biracial people to be painted at all, let alone with such strategic opulence. And if not for their hair, painted with intentional volume to capture subtle kinks and curls, Hiram and Elizabeth might be confused for white -- which you could interpret as a result of their biraciality, or as an early example of lightening a portrait subject's skin color to satisfy cultural norms of beauty and demonstrate affinity to a dominant group.

But beyond the velvet drapes and pale skin, one detail tells the full story of what the couple sought to prove through their portraits: two small books, clenched in their right hands as declarations of literacy -- a right not afforded to many people of slave descent, and a demonstration of the freedom that simply didn't exist for many like them, and which in a post-slavery America remains an illusion for millions.

if beale street could talk
Stephan James, KiKi Layne, and Brian Tyree Henry in 'If Beale Street Could Talk' | Annapurna Pictures

With these oil paintings, Hiram and Elizabeth were not simply providing visual records of their existence. They aimed to leave behind elegant declarations of social prominence, and more importantly, equality. These artifacts are early examples of how black portraiture can create dynamic representations of black people, millions of whom were still enslaved at the time of these portraits. Now, a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, black portrait artists like Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, commissioned in 2016 to paint Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits, have elevated blackness through their work. And in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has brought the inherent protest of black portraiture onto the big screen.

In the film, which earned Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Supporting Actress for Regina King, Jenkins creates a glorified portrayal of black love to upend its typically underdeveloped depictions. The genius of Jenkins' cinematography (longtime collaborator James Laxton served as cinematographer on the film) lies not in the positive nature of these portrayals, but in the intimate illustrations of black love's uniquely American tribulations -- and its dogged fight for survival.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), who were friends in childhood before falling in love in 1970s Harlem. Tish and Fonny's Harlem is a vibrant black community, but a hotbed for racial tension ever-lingering from the race riots of 1964, which resulted the death of a 15-year-old black boy at the hands of an off-duty police officer. The Harlem that Baldwin depicts in his original novel is defined by this continual crisis of unjustly policing black people -- an epidemic that also afflicts Tish and Fonny, who are navigating life after Fonny is falsely accused of rape and wrongfully incarcerated shortly before Tish learns she is pregnant. The conditions set the stage for Jenkins' twofold protest portraiture, both against a flat depiction of black love, and against the tendency to gloss over the adversity and suffering that is a constant backdrop to it. 

if beale street could talk
Annapurna Pictures

Just as the novel version of If Beale Street Could Talk moves between love story and protest novel, a balance Baldwin strikes throughout many of his works, Jenkins' adaptation uses flashbacks to oscillate between two worlds: a world before Fonny's arrest, and a world after. And while the black portraiture of the mid-19th century regaled itself in fanciful attire reserved for the wealthy, Jenkins's cinematic portraits are decorated with light and color.

In the world pre-dating Fonny's arrest, the sun is always setting in pink hues, which are indiscriminately cast across Tish's and Fonny's faces in moments of triumphant joy. At the conclusion of a long apartment search rife with racist refusals, light pours through the life-sized window of what would've been Tish and Fonny's first home, shrouding the couple to create glowing silhouettes. From there, flashbacks capture Tish jumping into Fonny's arms, celebrating through the street. And right as you think they might fade into the next storyline, their faces linger, begging you to watch the corners of Tish's and Fonny's mouth stretch into a hopeful smile, and their eyes crease with affection. In each moment, Tish or Fonny's faces bleed to the screen's edge and arrest the audience with their stare, telling you "it's a miracle to realize that somebody loves you," forcing you to feel what it's like to sit in black love's gaze and let the world slow down around you.

But the world of Tish and Fonny's past bears a deep contrast to their present, which is stifled by Fonny's ongoing legal proceedings. In this world, Jenkins' portraits are a far cry from two hopeful lovers locking eyes beneath Harlem sunsets. They are portraits of a white police officer, standing against a brick wall as Tish narrates how he falsely claimed to witness Fonny leaving the crime scene. In a shot of the officer, he clenches his teeth until the jaw line reveals small creases, staring perniciously but unable to maintain eye contact, aware of the life he's locked away.  

if beale street could talk
Annapurna Pictures

In the present, Jenkins also paints portraits of Fonny staring through prison glass, stained and smudged and framing every furrowed bow and trembling lip with despair. As Fonny stares unblinkingly through the glass, Jenkins dares the audience to look away from his bruised nose and bloodied eyes and not question such a profoundly American injustice. Jenkins aims to put the viewer on the other side of Fonny's booth, to feel the vibrations when he bangs on the booth's glass, crying for Tish's help and screaming for his freedom.

This image of this uniquely American tragedy, framed into a portrait by the prison phone booth's outer edge, bears a sharp contrast to the decadent portraits of Hiram and Elizabeth. Whereas the subjects sought to illustrate their freedom with extravagant displays that leave no question as to their wealth, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins' portraits reveal pain and agony experienced by black people at the hands of white police officers, and the legal system into which innocent black people are disproportionately thrust. Unlike Hiram and Elizabeth, the freedom Jenkins' paints is one not of wealth, but of humanity, replete with both the joy and pain that makes love feel real on screen.

And because Jenkins' obsession with portrait-like displays of blackness drives the intimacy and urgency of his story, If Beale Street Could Talk ends with an unresolved, conflict-ridden image of the young family's future, meshing together the two forms of portraiture Jenkins has used throughout the movie. As the film draws toward its resolution, the camera pans away as Tish and Fonny are shown at the prison, sitting at the table with their son between them, arrested by each other's gaze, bound both by love and the tragedy of injustice, refusing to look away from each other -- even if the rest of America refuses to see them.

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A.T. McWilliams is a writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and read more of his work at atmcwilliams.com