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Hearing Beale Street

Written by Jolene Cardenas

(Spoilers ahead: “If Beale Street Could Talk” Written by James Baldwin,  2018 film directed by Barry Jenkins)

“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” ― James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

I hear you. What happens when we use the criminal justice system but don’t consider how it deals with the communities we are trying to protect?

I have a well-recorded history of turning off or leaving movies that glorify violence and/or rape, followed by arguments with past boyfriends (usually who pout about having to turn off a film halfway through) about the content that supports rape culture with no real point other than to exploit sexual violence. Such films depict one aspect, usually the brutality, of sexual assault but never dive deep into the grey areas and the aftermath of such violence.

In contrast, it was a beautiful and heartbreaking experience to see James Baldwin’s perfectly written words come to life on screen in “If Beale Street Could Talk”. This film is an intense, elegant, and ultimately a superb depiction of the many intersectional dimensions of domestic and sexual violence in the United States. It does not focus its efforts on shocking the viewers with the inhumanity of the act of sexual assault but instead focuses on the after effect such violence has on the African-American community. One of the end results being domestic violence as part of a ripple effect from a wrongly imprisoned young man. This injustice caused by the disregard for the fractured relationship communities of color, specifically African-Americans, have with the criminal justice system.

Baldwin’s main characters, Fonny and Tish, are a modern day Romeo and Juliet. They have youth, hope, love and innocence shining through their beautiful eyes in each scene – even during the darkest moments. Yet, they are not free from the haunting reality of police brutality, racism, and intimidation that results from a criminal justice system that lacks the nuances needed to address violence within their lives. When Fonny is mis-identified in a line up by a rape survivor who was suffering extreme trauma and then goes to prison to await trial, his beautiful world with Tish unravels slowly. The answers his family seeks are never to be found. The end of their story is not wrapped up in a “hero saves all” ending with a neat little bow. No. It is an American tragedy with an ending as devastating as any Shakespeare play. Fonny is forced to take a plea, a deal urged forth by the District Attorney, after waiting four years for a judge to hear his case. The survivor disappeared after she identified Fonny, too distraught to live anywhere near the home where the attack occurred, she moves back to Puerto Rico with family. Tish is left to pick up what pieces she can to stay strong for her son and her partner. A family legacy lost to the system that functions so perfectly within the confines of the law that it has no use for the grey areas.

Those grey areas whwere Fonny was brought in for a line up because he offended a white street cop for hitting on Tish. The grey areas where prejudices reign true enough to distort reality. Where, even today, African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. The grey areas of sexual assault, where false accusations are no greater than that of any other crime yet there will always exist the connection of racist accusations that ended in lynchings of men of color. That same grey area where community advocacy to help survivors deal with trauma continually goes underfunded and ignored. And so it goes. A rapist goes free. Free from the criminal justice system that did its job so well, within the black or white laws, never exploring the grey world that communities of color must endure. An innocent African-American man and his family will live with the mark of a criminal record which all but erases their chance for employment or economic security forever. Our society continues to pay for these unending transgressions. Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre‐K‐12 public education in the last thirty years. In 2012 alone, the United States spent nearly $81 billion on corrections, according to the NAACP.

We cannot protect our communities if we don’t acknowledge fully the legacy that White Supremacy has contributed to the culture of the United States of America and its mass incarceration rates of people of color. If we don’t entrust survivors within their own communities to set policy for prevention and support, enhance advocacy, and dismantle oppressive systems then the movement to end sexual violence will not sustain. Beale Street is talking. Are we all listening?


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