I’ve been searching for some kind of solace. Some story that acknowledges the weight of systemic inequality; that acknowledges people beyond just the issues, events, or movements they’re attached to.
When I left the theater after seeing If Beale Street Could Talk, I was confronted with the pressing reality that its 1970s set story was still very much alive today, if not more so. Black people are still cordoned off to narrow sections of the city until they’re pushed out by the unconcerned greed of gentrifiers. We are still cautious and fearful at the hands of the police—sweaty palms and childhood lessons of polite distrust notwithstanding. And yet we still survive, love passionately, and pull our families together with every fiber of our being. Our artistic expressions have always reflected that.
In 2016, Solange offered us an invitation into her world. A Seat at the Table laid plain the stresses and fears of her life—an offer to anyone willing to engage and step into the life of the forgotten American: the Black woman. She sang of a world where she waded through filth and muck up to her shoulders. She sang of tiredness on “Weary” and the reclamation of her—our—place in the world on “F.U.B.U.” And her stories rang true for Black women at large: women generations older than her and girls just now stepping onto elementary school playgrounds.
Women like Tish, the 19-year-old protagonist of If Beale Street Could Talk, played by actress Kiki Layne, the ardent lover to actor Stephan James’ Fonny. In the couple’s first act of intimacy in the film, writer-director Barry Jenkins looks to composer Nicholas Britell to supply “Eros,” a cut from the Beale Street soundtrack matching the passion Jenkins’ eye supplies to the scene. The scene is a dance of sorts. A dance between Tish and Fonny placing love in Black relationships at the forefront and between Britell and Jenkins where every sound moves with the intimate weight of each frame.
These two dances undergird Beale Street. Britell’s ability to match every moment in the film paces well with Jenkins’ unwillingness to shy from the reality of the story. Tish and Fonny’s love is defiantly refined as Tish finds out she’s pregnant while Fonny is on trial for a rape he didn’t commit. The rhythm of Beale Street is the resilience to fight when injustice is snapping at your heels, and it’s felt in the string section Britell composes for the score.
This same rhythm is the one Solange steps to when she tells her own story. Without sharing any stylistic similarities to Britell’s score or Jenkins’ eye, Solange’s album moves at the same tempo. She sings with a thoughtful quality, aware that America is unsettled by the expression of Black Women. And yet she still decides to wade through the mud and deliver every emotion in its most honest form. Maybe that’s why “Mad” sounds like anything but anger. It’s soft and inviting, like much of ASATT, but its lyrics are barbed baseball bats. Even Lil Wayne has sounded angrier, but here turns in a verse that if read on a page would come off with the passion of a southern revival meeting. But at the end, Solange sings, “I ran into this girl, I said, ‘I’m tired of explaining’/ Man, this shit is draining / But I’m not really allowed to be mad.” She recognizes her anger is lost in a space that doesn’t let her express herself and devalues the range of her emotions.
By making her experience the album’s fulcrum, Solange posits her value in the face of a system hellbent on devaluing her. She recognizes she’s in a world ready to overlook her pleas and she musters up the strength to express anyway. This is what Jenkins and Britell do with Beale Street: they recognize the narrow lane Black people are cordoned off to. They recognize the hurdles and the traps set before us. They take stock of the finality of the justice system and the great burden it has on all of those caught in its grip.
In one of the finest scenes of the film, Brian Tyree Henry’s character, Daniel, recalls his own recent experience in prison. He acts with a haunting sense of reality, always on the verge of losing it, eyes giving away a sense of fear and horror; all while Britell works the thunderous reverb of “PTSD” into the vinyl record playing Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” in the background.
Later, towards the end of the film, when it becomes apparent there won’t be a way out for Fonny, Tish visits him in prison to deliver the bad news. Pregnant like a balloon she sits in the prison visitation chair and waits for Fonny. When he turns up, he’s got a busted lip and a bruised eye—the product of implied but unwitnessed violence in prison. But before Tish says anything, Fonny calmly remarks, “How are you?”
Earlier, in the face of his adversity, Fonny can’t contain his anger. Here he’s steady, resolved, not quite resigned, but he moves with hope. Fonny looks at us, as we observe from Tish’s perspective, and says, “Baby I love you and I’m going to build us a great big table and our family is going to eat off it for a long, long time to come.”
All the hope Jenkins has to offer is bundled up in this scene. Even as Fonny is physically separated from the two things that keep him alive, he’s hopeful, and his strength is in the love that swaddles him even as he sleeps in a cold prison cell. As he delivers his monologue, the soft keys of “Requiem” build in the background, and with it, the love Fonny is projecting to Tish and his unborn child becomes more palpable.
Beale Street and A Seat at the Table both speak about the lives of singular characters in a way that invokes the spirit of generations both long gone and yet to come. Solange closes her album with Master P saying:
“That's what make my life complete, knowing that it's a higher being, a higher power, knowing that these people done paved they way. You know, our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers that came here, they found some kind of way to make the rhythm. You know, and they kept rhythm, no matter what. Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.”
Solange understands the legacy her life operates in. She recognizes Master P’s ability to evoke the spirit of Black survivors—she has the generation above her remark on the generations before them. Master P’s tone is the pride you feel when you look back on your trials with enough distance from them. In the midst of struggle, there is no way to see anything but pain. Black hope is the knowledge that you must do what it takes to make it, you work and you toil to get through the next thing because there always is a next thing and there is always a rhythm to find.
In Beale Street, Tish and Fonny’s family work themselves tirelessly and sacrifice everything to try and free Fonny. They’re unsuccessful, like many families in their position, but there is an intransigent spirit of survival at play in each of their actions. And this is where Beale Street is.
When James Baldwin wrote the novel If Beale Street Could Talk in 1972, he was writing a story about love in the Black community. He understood the situations of the times meant this love was constantly being stretched, tested, and solidified. He wrote singular characters, with strong connections and an unwillingness to give in, and he put them in our home: Beale Street. On the title card to the film, Baldwin is quoted saying, “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.”
Ever since I walked out of that theater, I’ve been searching for Beale Street. I found it in the rhythm of the family I love dearly, those that came before me, and the family yet to come. I found it in the rhythm that lifts me and many others that look like me out of bed in the morning. I found it in the willingness to approach the specter of injustice every day, to fight where a fight is needed, and to retain a hope rooted in the power of a radical love both timeless and immaterial, a love forged in the fires of a world which seeks so ardently to extinguish any chance of equality.
I’ve found my solace on Beale Street, and there is room at this table for anyone willing to open up and love earnestly. Would you care to join me?