A well-rounded view of black life in America
The Rivers family of Harlem and the Robinson family of Chicago are so much alike. Both are close-knit, two-parent foundations of African-American strength. They are hard-working and proud, and they deal with life’s adversities with dignity, grace and gumption. Only one thing separates them: the Rivers are fictional; the Robinsons are real.
The Rivers are the beating heart of If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’s film adaptation of the 1974 novel with the same name by James Baldwin. The story revolves around Tish Rivers and her childhood friend-turned-love, Fonny Hunt, their respective families and how they hold together through a series of struggles.
An unintended pregnancy doesn’t stop the trajectory of Tish’s and Fonny’s lives. It is clear from the opening scene that their bond was rooted in permanence. But a beat cop with a vendetta alters that trajectory when he frames Fonny for a rape he didn’t commit. Suddenly, their young hopes and dreams that played out on the streets of Harlem and the West Village in New York in the first half of the film give way to the nightmare of glass partitions, attorneys and family members doing everything they can to free him from a system rigged against them.
The Robinsons are the real-life family that nurtured Michelle Robinson. Her father never missed a shift of work at a water filtration plant in Chicago, despite having multiple sclerosis. Young Michelle’s mother was a stay-at-home mom until both of her children were older and an extra income was needed to prepare for the two going to college.
Both went to Princeton. Michelle would go on to Harvard Law School, get a job at a high-powered law firm back in her home town, where she would mentor a young summer associate named Barack Obama. Michelle Robinson would become Michelle Obama. And she would become First Lady of the United States after her husband became this nation’s 44th president, the first African-American to reach that office.
As grim as the storyline of Beale Street is, I couldn’t help but smile from beginning to bitter end as the lives of the Rivers family were depicted with incredible dignity. That word comes to mind because the characters were complex but not caricatures or stereotypes. Their travails were serious, but not overdramatised. Their lives were nuanced like life itself, but presented without finger-wagging judgment.
All of which enhanced the power of the insidious forces arrayed against Tish, Fonny and their families, from the landlords who wouldn’t rent to the couple to the rotten-to-the-core criminal justice system that thwarted their families’ efforts to free Fonny.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by such cinematic care. The director of Beale Street is Barry Jenkins. He and Tarell McCraney won the 2017 Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Moonlight, another harrowing tale of black life told with care and nuance that also won the Oscar for best picture.
In her new book Becoming, Michelle Obama recounts her life, from its start on Chicago’s South Side to its improbable residency in the White House. I’m only halfway through it now, just as Obama is reflecting on her husband’s decision to run for president. But I’m fixated on her recitation of her upbringing because it so reflects my own — and broadly what is depicted in Beale Street.
What beautifully unfolds in the first half of Becoming are scenes that will be utterly familiar to African-Americans: the focus on family. The importance of music. The pride in one’s car and one’s home. The necessity of moving forward and the imperative of moving up if you can.
Obama’s riff on her father’s care and tending to his Buick Electra 225, and her mother’s spring ritual with Pine-Sol had me nodding with “I know all about that” recognition.
Beale Street and Becoming are two different stories, again, one real, one fictional. But with both, you get a well-rounded view of black life and the realities that African-Americans face. In fact, something Obama writes about her husband’s assessment of her family made me write “Beale Street” in the margin.
“Barack sometimes jokes, in fact, that my upbringing was like a black version of Leave It to Beaver, with the South Shore Robinsons as steady and fresh-faced as the Cleaver family of Mayfield, USA, although of course we were a poorer version of the Cleavers, with my dad’s blue city workers’ uniform subbing for Mr Cleaver’s suit.
“Barack makes this comparison with a touch of envy because his own childhood was so different, but also as a way to push back on the entrenched stereotype that African-Americans primarily live in broken homes, that our families are somehow incapable of living out the same stable, middle-class dream as our white neighbours.”
What Michelle Obama writes nails exactly why Beale Street resonated with me. For too long, Hollywood and popular culture have presented a one-dimensional, either-or vision of African-Americans that leaves none of us feeling as though we see ourselves. The aspirations dramatised in Beale Street and portrayed in Becoming mirrored those of my family. But what has resonated most in Becoming is Obama’s recognition that her trajectory and that of her brother, Craig, could have gone in another direction.
Early on, Obama writes about how her complaints to her mother about the mayhem in her second-grade classroom led to her being placed in a class with other high-performing students with a teacher who cared. “It was a small but life-changing move,” Obama writes. “I didn’t stop to ask myself then what would happen to all the kids who’d been left in the basement with the teacher who couldn’t teach. Now that I’m an adult, I realise that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn.”
Put even more succinctly pages later, Obama notes: “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”
And she writes powerfully about failure’s equally pernicious cousin: resignation. Obama recounts the discrimination faced by her grandfather, who was unable to pursue the American Dream down south in South Carolina or up north in Chicago. He and many of the men in their family who arrived as part of the Great Migration had their aspirations blunted by the racism that kept union cards out of their hands and employment that matched their skills and intelligence out of their reach.
“This particular form of discrimination altered the destinies of generations of African-Americans, including many of the men in my family, limiting their income, their opportunity, and, eventually, their aspirations. As a carpenter, Southside [her uncle] wasn’t allowed to work for the larger construction firms that offered steady pay on long-term projects, given that he couldn’t join a labour union. My great-uncle Terry ... had abandoned a career as a plumber for the same reason, instead becoming a Pullman porter. There was also Uncle Pete, on my mother’s side, who’d been unable to join the taxi drivers’ union and instead turned to driving an unlicensed jitney, picking up customers who lived in the less safe parts of the West Side, where normal cabs didn’t like to go.
“These were highly intelligent, able-bodied men who were denied access to stable high-paying jobs, which in turn kept them from being able to buy homes, send their kids to college, or save for retirement. It pained them, I know, to be cast aside, to be stuck in jobs that they were overqualified for, to watch white people leapfrog past them at work, sometimes training new employees they knew might one day become their bosses. And it bred within each of them at least a basic level of resentment and mistrust. You never quite knew what other folks saw you to be.”
In another vignette, Obama shares how her brother got a new bike and rode it over to Lake Michigan. “He’d been promptly picked up by a police officer who accused him of stealing it, unwilling to accept that a young black boy would have come across a new bike in an honest way,” she writes.
Even though the cop was also black, Obama says her parents told them that what happened “was unjust, but also unfortunately common. The colour of our skin made us vulnerable. It was a thing we’d always have to navigate”.
It is here where, if Beale Street and Becoming were stories told in parallel, the narratives would diverge. The rape accusation that lands Fonny in jail is devastating. The last half of the movie is like watching the air deflate from a high-flying balloon. All that joy and endless possibility that infused every interaction between Tish and Fonny slowly dissipate from one prison-visit scene to the next. Before your eyes you watch a young man go from desperately hanging on to hope that truth would prevail to a person resigned to his circumstances. Their relationship is held in suspended animation, thanks to an adorable son.
The only thing to come out of Craig Robinson’s real-life interaction with that police officer was an apology — from the cop — at the insistence of Mrs Robinson. He went on to play basketball overseas and become an investment banker before leaving that to do what he really wanted: coach basketball.
As for his sister, Michelle, we all know what happened. As first lady, she embodied the pride of a people. Just by being herself, she continues to make people, especially African-Americans who will never meet her, feel as though they know her. And as you turn the pages of Becoming, you are fortified in your view that she could be your favourite cousin or big sister or homegirl. If Beale Street is a factual yet fictional presentation of what life is like for African-Americans, then Becoming is a real-life illustration of what happens when aspirations are given room to take flight.
• Jonathan Capehart is a member of The Washington Post editorial board, writes about politics and social issues, and is host of the Cape Up podcast