I am a consistent crier at movies. I somehow cried all the way through Moana even the third time I watched it - as in, starting at minute one! There are, no doubt, explanations for this. I am overly empathetic, my emotions lie too close to the surface, and motherhood has likely exacerbated both things. I tell you this because a piece of media making me cry, whether it’s Oscar bait or a Superbowl commercial, tells you nothing about its quality or its emotional honesty. My tears are not a standing ovation; they’re more like the polite applause you get from golf spectators even when it takes you seven strokes to sink your putt (not that I would know anything about that).
Maybe it’s not so strange, then, that the standout movie of my recent past is the one that has lodged itself in my brain without making me shed a single tear. That movie is Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, which I’m tempted to say should have been nominated for Best Picture, but given how that race turned out, I’m almost glad it didn’t run. I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about things I love an embarrassing amount, creative productions that activate involuntary systems in my body and cause me to cry or laugh uncontrollably. I am and forever will be fascinated by art that produces these effects on me, but I have learned to be wary of my own tears as a marker of significance. Emotional reactions are not all, and they can at times cloud my capacity for higher thinking, even when the latter serves me better. Part of why I have less than no desire to see the movie Green Book is because I know myself well enough to know that that fucking movie would almost undoubtedly make me cry despite all the reasons I know it to be harmful and insulting (not to mention mostly pretty boring and derivative). A feel-good ending to a mediocre or outright bad movie is still going to elicit an involuntary response. Maybe I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I, too, harbor a certain susceptibility to racial reconciliation fantasies, just like so many other white people, but I like to interpret that discomfort as recognition of the fact that I need to stop shedding tears in its service.
And how would I feel about myself for crying at Green Book and not at Beale Street? I’d rather dismiss the former (I have read the Twitter; I feel informed enough) and give the latter the reflection it deserves for its restraint.
Beale Street is not restrained in its depiction of racism; it is restrained in its doling out of emotional rewards to its viewers, particularly its white viewers. Even as I watched it, I found myself tensely waiting for the film to yank hard on my heartstrings. Though it takes a while for all the details of the case to become clear, the plot’s central mechanism is the wrongful accusation of Fonny (Stephan James) and his imprisonment while he awaits trial. His innocence is never really in question, nor is the suffering of Victoria (Emily Rios), the woman who is asked to identify her rapist in a lineup and points to Fonny. The idea that Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) is on the lookout for a reason to arrest Fonny and sees his opportunity in Victoria’s trauma is sadly believable, and the movie doesn’t take any more time than it needs in laying out the facts. This is all it takes to ruin the life of a young black man about to become a father, and though his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) and her entire family muster all their resources in an attempt to clear Fonny’s name and get him out of prison, their resources are nothing close to enough to battle a legal system designed to disadvantage them in every way. A lesser movie might expend a lot of energy to prove to the viewer that Fonny is definitely innocent; look, it might say, we have a witness to corroborate his alibi! Beale Street feints in this direction just a little when it introduces the recently-paroled Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), whose gripping, haunted monologue to Fonny about the horrors of his incarceration on the night of Victoria’s rape seems almost like the key to Fonny’s exoneration. If we were watching an actual suspense movie, the pursuit of Daniel’s testimony would be our MacGuffin. After we see him in that scene, we don’t see him again, and hopeful mentions of his ability to help Fonny soon taper off, too. Daniel has a record. His testimony would directly contradict that of a white officer. You do the math.
The average movie about a wrongful accusation leans heavily on artificial suspense about whether justice will prevail, but Beale Street isn’t a suspense movie, and Daniel isn’t a MacGuffin. Yet, I have been thoroughly trained in the American movie’s insistence on neat resolution, emotional payoff, and the growth of white people at the expense of black people. If, as in Beale Street, a black person is the victim of injustice, there will probably be a white person who plays a part in the rescue operation, often in service of a personal journey towards becoming better. For every Boo Radley, there is an Atticus Finch, or if we want to get more contemporary, for every Thandie Newton there is a Matt Dillon (listen to last week’s episode of Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris’s podcast Still Processing if you want to be reminded of the god-awful racial politics of the god-awful movie Crash, 2006’s Best Picture. Side note: perhaps not surprisingly, Crash made me sob uncontrollably, and I’m still pissed about that). My eyes thus rested warily on the white lawyer, Hayward (Finn Wittrock), both wanting him to go to the mat for Fonny and Tish and at the same time dreading his seemingly-inevitable takeover of the justice-prevails narrative. Beale Street was miles ahead of me, of course, and it took care of Hayward’s character arc with a single voiceover from Tish, about two thirds of the way through the movie:
“The date for Fonny's trial keeps changing. This fact, of course, forces me to realize that Hayward's concern is genuine. I don't think that he very much cared in the beginning. He’d never taken a case like Fonny's before, but... once into it, the odor of shit rose too high -- he had no choice but to keep stirring it. It became obvious at once, for example, that the degree of his concern for his client placed him at odds with the keepers of the keys and seals. He had not expected this and at first it bewildered...then frightened and angered him.”
We hear this monologue over the briefest montage of Hayward beginning to see the black and white of things in his world. The sequence culminates with the perfectly-groomed young white man disconcertedly accepting a hand towel from an elderly black restroom attendant in the men’s room of his social club. His personal awakening to systemic racism, though, isn’t really our concern. After we cut away from his immaculate white world, we don’t see him again. Tish’s monologue both recognizes Hayward’s struggle to represent Fonny adequately - his concern, his bewilderment, even his fear and anger - and at the same time refuses to elevate his good feelings and intentions unduly. Hayward cares, and he wants to do the right thing, but that doesn’t make this a story about him.
Beale Street delivers its last gesture towards the possibility of justice for Fonny in Regina King’s rightfully Oscar-winning performance as Sharon, Tish’s mother, goes to Puerto Rico in search of Victoria. It’s not clear that even she knows what she hopes to accomplish by forcing a rape victim to revisit her trauma; all she knows is that Fonny is innocent, Victoria’s vulnerability has been ruthlessly manipulated in bad faith, and she will never forgive herself if she doesn’t at least try to make it right. She does, and it goes about as badly as one could have predicted. We only get this one scene with Victoria, and it’s enough to tell us that the trauma and the injustice she has endured are their own movie entirely. Fonny’s story cannot lean on Victoria’s to engineer a cathartic ending to Beale Street; the movie is not going to ask her or Daniel Carty to fling themselves on the altar of movie-audience satisfaction. Instead, Fonny will take a plea deal, and the movie will end quietly with Tish and Fonny and their son Alonzo Jr. holding hands as they sit around a table in a prison visiting area. It’s both deeply anticlimactic and deeply moving.
As the credits rolled, I did not cry. Catharsis did not come. Rather, I sat with the immobility of everything in the world that would not budge for Fonnie or Tish or Victoria. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
I wrote a doctoral dissertation about books that act as though they’re going to do one thing and then surprise you by doing another: a twelve-book odyssey in verse that tells you with all its structural elements and outward gestures that it’s going to be an epic like the Thebaid but then from that platform chooses to elevate a story of love above the expected story of war. The 14th-century texts that experimented with what we in the 21st century call genre-bending often got slammed, most particularly by 19th-century literary scholars who determined that since the author in question hadn’t followed the established formula properly, he had failed in what he was trying to do. I argued that there was much more to be gained by assuming full awareness and intentionality on the part of the author in choosing to alter those formulas and beginning our critical journey from there. Even though I don’t study 14th-century literature anymore, I am still obsessed with this process of interrogation: what were the expectations I didn’t even know I had for this text, and what does my reaction to the unexpected say about me?
Watching Beale Street, I was conscious the entire time of my expectations trying to watch the movie for me. I clung first to Daniel, then to Hayward, then to Victoria for the salvation of Fonny, and ultimately, in the third act, I braced for the movie to drop a bomb on me that would shock and horrify me and bring me to tears immediately. I confess that I suspected Fonny would die in prison somehow. Why else would a film spend so much time showing me two people falling in love and taking on the world together, if not to then destroy them utterly, bring the house down, get that Oscar nom? In this case, because their story is just worth telling without all the constructed pathos of the Hollywood movie. I, the (white) viewer, am not owed resolution or comfort or even the release of my own tears to make me feel like a good person for my borderline-involuntary outpouring of empathy. Sitting in the theater and grappling with how strongly my subconscious wanted to game out the narrative before it happened, I realized that Beale Street had done nothing to create expectations for me like my 14th-century romance did in pretending to be an epic. It never pretended to be a suspense movie or a feel-good racial-reconciliation fantasy; it had no interest in either. I just reached for those tropes in my head as I tried to categorize what I was watching. Every time I waited for the other shoe to drop, the film just quietly took a left turn and, without scolding me, reminded me that in my conditioned anticipation I risked missing the actual story. I left the theater with a fullness in my heart that, rather than release through tears, has been growing ever since through talking, thinking, and writing.