'Beale Street' In the Era of #MeToo



In “If Beale Street Could Talk,” starring newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James (“Race, Shots Fired”) as Tish and Fonny respectively, chronicles the love story of two young adults whose future is torn apart by an accusation of rape. Set in the early 1970s in Harlem, New York, a pregnant Tish and her family attempt to seek vindication for Fonny and release him from jail before their child is born.

Midway through the film, the camera slowly pans to Fonny’s accuser, Victoria Rogers, with an ominous score rising in the background. Victoria is not allowed to speak for herself in this scene, instead Tish is telling her story. Tish does not vilify Victoria, but it places her in stark contrast with the love that binds Tish and Fonny and as the catalyst for tearing them apart. Tish details how Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) may have coerced Victoria into choosing Fonny as the rapist as he had a vendetta against him from a prior altercation at a storefront bodega. During the trial, Sharon (Regina King), the mother of Tish, conjures up a plan to get a confession from Victoria as she has fled back home to Puerto Rico.

While there, Sharon contacts Victoria in an attempt to get her to tell who actually raped her, Sharon tries to show her a photograph of Fonny and touches her, causes Victoria to have an outburst and leaving Sharon without a clear answer of the true assailant. In a following scene, Tish is out to dinner with her sister (Teyonah Parris), and they have a discussion regarding Fonny’s innocence. While Tish is adamant that Fonny is innocent of the rape, her sister is hesitant in discrediting Victoria.  

Trouble arises with presenting this narrative in today’s climate as we should believe the victim and acknowledge the trauma they have experienced. James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk during the close of the Civil Rights Movement and a tumultuous period in American history. With the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s being the backdrop of this story, African-American males being falsely accused of rape was common at this time.

While Baldwin’s work was beautifully captured by director Barry Jenkins, we have to look at If Beale Street Could Talk as a product of its time and to not see it as a vehicle to discredit victims of rape. This narrative becomes complicated during a time where powerful men are being taken down for sexual transgressions used to usurp women in the workplace. Unlike Baldwin’s Beale Street, we have become more attuned to the victims’ stories which would not have been afforded nearly fifty years ago when it was written. “If Beale Street Could Talk” should be seen as a product of its time that sheds light on injustices that are still being faced by African-Americans today. It should be viewed as a story of love surviving despite its trials and tribulations.