This. Is. A. Major. Movie. Alert. (Cue Flex Bombs!)

“To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds.”

bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (a Black woman who be knowing)

Hey Everyone! How are those New Year’s Resolutions holding up? Shout out to those who are still hitting the gym, still making those green smoothies and the ones who will get back to their resolutions when they’re good and gotdamn ready. I see all of y’all.

What I’ve also seen, which I hope many of you have had the opportunity to check out is If Beale Street Could Talk which is directed by Barry Jenkins and is based on the book written by the late James Baldwin. What do you get when you put these two geniuses together? You get perfection. You get dopeness. You get art and more importantly, you get love. Black love.

This film is so important for so many reasons and all of them have to do with the depictions of the different types of Black love we get to see from the page to the screen. I’m just gon’ admit right now that I haven’t read the book but based on the movie, I’m sure I would love it.

As a community, we tend to say Black love and automatically think #RelationshipGoals. You think Will and Jada, Boris and Nicole, Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee. But we have also loosely assigned the phrase Black love to everyone out here who happens to be Black and going through the motions in many times, raggedy ass, toxic ass relationships.Think Juelz Santana and Kimbella. This is not the Black love that we get in the film (nor do I want, #sorrynotsorry.)

Jenkins takes Baldwin’s words and visually represents the beauty and depth of Black love that is undeniable. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m gonna try my best not to spoil too much for you and by try my best, I mean I’m gonna spoil some shit for you. Just know you’ve been warned. Secondly, watching this film took me back to moments in my own life that I am going to talk about so yes, y’all gonna be my audience/therapist too.

With that being said, where do I begin?

I guess at the beginning.

Black mamas love hard AF. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot, the film is about a 19 year old cocoa goddess named Tish and her fine ass chocolate man, Fonnie. They are two young people deeply in love and that love is tested after Fonnie is falsely accused of a crime and sent to jail. In the beginning of the film, Tish discovers that she’s pregnant and has to break the news to her mother. Her mom, Mrs. Rivers played by the forever dope and beautiful, Regina King, comes home from work to see an anxious and nervous Tish sitting in the kitchen.

The moment is intense as we wait to see the reaction after Tish breaks the news. Is she gonna get her ass whooped? Thrown out the house? Forced to get an abortion? These are all of the crazy thoughts that went through my mind (clearly, I didn’t read the book) and shockingly, none of those things happen. Her mom puts out the good liquor and waits for Tish’s father and sister to get home so they can celebrate.

Let’s unpack my irrational prediction.

I listen to a podcast called The Nod and it was interesting that the hosts also expected something terrible when Tish broke the news to her mom. So I’m like, great, it wasn’t just me thinking the worst. But why? Why the shock that she would embrace her daughter instead of berate her?

The most beautiful aspect of this movie is the way that it removes shame from the characters’/our experiences. Not only does her mother validate her but she reminds Tish that her baby was made from love despite the circumstances of the parents. Each ticket to this movie should come with a complimentary pack of Kleenex cause Baldwin gets the dialogue, the feeling and the experience right. This is just one of many moments where my eyeballs started sweating.

But that ain’t the best part. When Tish breaks the news to her dad, she sits on the couch away from her family with her eyes looking down and her sister played by Teyonah Parris has one of the most powerful lines in the movie when she simply tells Tish:

“Unbow your head, sister.”

That is my line for 2019 to all my sistren who need me! She is saying, No, no, no Sis. Hold your head. You ain’t got nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. You are safe and loved here. This is a command to Tish. She is not allowed to hang her head low. She is not allowed to be ashamed.

This scene was validating for me because I was much younger than Tish when I told my mother that I was pregnant. I can still remember 14 year old me standing with my mother in the kitchen breaking the news. Now that I think of it, why do so many important conversations between Black women take place in the kitchen? And why do I remember that specifically?

But I remember my mother doing what I didn’t expect- she asked me what I wanted to do. This was my mom giving me agency over what to do with my life and the life of another being. This was my choice and I would have to deal with the weight (literally and figuratively) of my decisions because I chose to keep my baby. Yes, yes y’all I did.

And her next statement was, we need to make you an appointment. I know my mother wasn’t hype that her naive, fourteen-year-old was pregnant but she also knew that I was strong, smart and driven and despite my age and the father’s age, my baby was also made from love.

I recently saw a tweet from @_JayyElle that read,

I think ppl get offended when you aren’t ashamed of the things that they were taught to be ashamed of. They resent you for not caring what everybody thinks.

I don’t go to church but I would’ve put money in her collection plate for that one. I am largely who I am because of the removal of shame from my life. My mother could’ve easily made me get an abortion because I was the second of five children at the time and financially, it would have made sense or she could’ve sent me down South. Black folks, y’all know when we fuck up our parents send our asses down to the Carolinas or Georgia. For what? I still don’t know but nonetheless, that didn’t happen to me.

Watching the film reminded me that it was my parents and particularly the way that my mother handled that situation that allowed me to unbow my head.

Black love is hard but it’s gentle too. Like Fonnie, my daughter’s father was also incarcerated throughout my entire pregnancy and after. Throughout the film, the love between Tish and Fonnie remain strong but worn. You see the way the criminal (in)justice system tries to break down Black love and the Black family.

There is a moment in the film where Fonnie has been physically hurt. It’s unclear if this is by another inmate or by the guards. More importantly, it’s not just his face that is battered and bruised- it’s also his spirit. Fonnie is no longer as hopeful as he once was. He’s frustrated and even worse, he has fallen into despair. I read in one of Brene Brown’s books that despair is the feeling that tomorrow is going to be just like today.

What do people do who have fallen into despair? They typically lash out at those that they love and Tish catches some of that heat. I ain’t gonna lie. The shit is frustrating. While I don’t know what it’s like to be in jail, I know what it feels like to love and be there for someone who is and trust me, that shit ain’t fun either. Here’s a summary of what that feels like:

I remember waking up early on a Saturday or Sunday, belly getting bigger.

Gotta catch the van that goes to Riker’s.

Gotta wait for the van to fill up.

There’s a lot of waiting.

When the money is low, gotta wait for two trains and a bus.

Gotta show ID when I get there and wait.

Get on the blue school bus that goes to the correct building that he calls home.

Gotta watch wives, girlfriends, sisters, children, elders, take their belts off, get scanned, patted down and be treated undignified.

Go upstairs and wait for them to call his name.

We sit across from one another talking and wishing time would slow down, wishing time would wait.

I ask him about his next court date. He says his lawyer said that they pushed the date back so now he has…we have to wait.

I don’t know how much longer I can carry this weight.

We kiss and embrace so long that the CO taps my chair and we ask if she can wait just one more minute.

I leave without him and I get home the same way I came and wait for him to call me, to check on me.

I know I won’t have to wait long to do this all over again.

But it’s not all bad. We had happy moments just like Tish and Fonnie do. They joke about how big Tish is getting. He tells her how beautiful she is, how much he loves her and we believe it because it’s true. Fonnie loves Tish and Tish loves the hell outta Fonnie. While there was a feeling of sadness and empathy that kept coming over me as I watched the scenes where she visits him in prison, I also felt a deep belief in love which restored some of the hope that we sometimes lose when everything seems to be stacked against us.

I hope I’m not spoiling too much so to avoid y’all cussing me out in the comments, I’m just gonna make one last and very important point.

Black dads for the win! While media representations will have y’all out here believing that all Black fathers are either absent or ain’t shit, Beale Street ain’t here for that negative, limiting ass narrative. Tish’s father is happy to become a grandfather and he supports his daughter. Here are a few reasons why he is that dude.

  • Gotta love his perspective. In the scene after the pregnancy reveal, he and Fonnie’s dad sit at the bar. Fonnie’s father worries about his son and the possibility that he’ll remain in jail. He’s not worried that Fonnie might not be innocent but about the money he doesn’t have to pay the lawyer to prove it. This is a familiar problem in Black and Brown communities which usually ends with innocent Black bodies staying in jail not because they’re guilty but simply because they’re poor.

But Tish’s dad makes the point we all know too well: Black folks ain’t never had no money but we raise our kids and make a way out of no way. With that statement, they take another shot at the bar as they cook up a scheme to get some bread. Which leads to my second point.

  • He’s a hustler. You should be hearing Rick Ross right now. Everyday, I’m hustlin’ hustlin’, hustlin’. We don’t sit by idly and wait for things to happen. We make shit happen. Tish and Fonnie’s dads get out there, find their connects and sell high end clothes to make some extra money. We all know that having a job ain’t never been enough. We are a people who do what needs to be done to make sure we eat.

Every time I tell people that my dad used to send me with money to Riker’s to put in my boyfriend’s commissary people would look at me like I told them I shit in the middle of the street. They missed the whole point. I loved him and I was having his baby and as far as my dad was concerned, this young, incarcerated man was now someone he loved and needed to look out for. I saw that unconditional love reflected to me in the film.

  • His love for the Black women in his life, especially Tish is undeniable. There’s a scene where Tish is getting bigger and the pregnancy is wearing on her. She gets up in the middle of the night, vomiting. It’s obvious that she’s not just sick but she’s scared. She doesn’t say it in that scene but it’s implied. What’s gonna happen to Fonnie? This baby? Her? Them?  

She comes out of the bathroom and her father intuitively holds her and rocks her as a thunderstorm is happening outside their window. For anyone who knows me, I am a certified daddy’s girl. I ain’t gonna lie though. My dad cut my ass off for the first two months of my pregnancy. He was hurt.

But he was also the one who would make sure that I elevated my legs so that I wouldn’t get varicose veins. He made sure that my careless fourteen year old ass put cocoa butter on my stomach. He rubbed the bottom of my back when the father of my unborn child couldn’t.

Tish’s dad is my dad (R.I.P). I swallowed hard during that scene and I was so grateful that a scene like that existed. It made men like my dad visible.

My biggest takeaway- ain’t no such thing as too much Black love and as Black women, we give love and we receive some love too. My biggest disappointment in myself, however, is the shock I have when I see Black love play out in a way that I don’t expect even though I experienced that type of Black love. Stereotypes are pervasive AF, y’all.

I don’t want to be an accessory to normalizing low standards for Black family love because we’ve always showed up for ours. As my Aunt Ronie (another Black woman who be knowing) told me when I revealed my pregnancy, “Don’t you feel bad. You ain’t the first and you won’t be the last.” She was also reassuring me that there was no room for shame cause we always take care of ours. I wasn’t alone.

So thank you James Baldwin for writing those words and showing the complexity of our love, the fierceness of our love and the resilience that Black love affords us. Thank you Barry Jenkins for visually showing that message. Maya Angelou dropped the gems when she said, “You have to have courage to love somebody. Because you risk everything. Everything.”

So we gon’ continue to love boldly.

Love fiercely.

And love unapologetically.

And if you don’t know, now you be knowing.

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6 Comments

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  1. I could kick myself for not seeing this movie yet but great read as always. Your brief description makes me want to see it even more. I loved how you highlighted the importance of black fathers in the movie and how they don’t fit the stereotype in most films of being absent or angry but more so supportive, loving and protective. Of course I was emotional when you mentioned daddy. He was all of those things and more. Continue to do what you do best which is put paper to pen. The world needs more sistahs like you. Love you!

  2. Khalya my friend, when I started reading I thought I would only be reading a film review, but you courageously interwove your own powerful narrative with that of the young protagonists of the movie. “You are safe and loved here.” This common reality that you thankfully shared allowed you to make your choice. Let us all be so loved. Let us all love so much.
    A

  3. First off I need tissues just from reading this here. I habent seen the movie or read the book but now I going to make sure I do. Amd I think I’m gpong to have to steal your favorite phrase because that ” unbow your head sista” is powerful amd can be take to so many levels. Black woman hold their heads low for toooo many reasons. Its time we all “unbow our heads”

  4. This makes me think about what the characters in the movie do right…and what that looks like for outcomes if we can remove shame from our experiences. I’m thinking about conversations teachers have with students…where we send messages of humiliation that reinforce oppression by teaching our students to constantly, always be ashamed. Too often we teach young people they’ve let down their communities, they’ve let themselves down, and they’ve let us down through every interaction. In truth, we’re the only ways that have failed.
    Also, your point about poverty dictating whether people stay in jail is huge. I was listing to a podcast this morning and they discussed that 1 in 10 people in Ohio has a suspended license…mostly because of the fines…and that once this happens, only a limited people can get the money to reinstate their license. This just leads to greater problems in court for folks that can’t afford the fine but need to keep driving, or who get brought in on other charges but have a suspended license that makes their case even more challenging. Obviously this is a minor example on a major topic.

  5. “Unbow your head, sister.”

    Wow. This post was so powerful. I appreciate you infusing elements of your own experiences into what appears to be an amazing story of love (since I haven’t read the book or seen the film as yet). Yet another example of art imitating life, and life imitating art. You talked about needing some Kleenex while watching the movie—I needed a few while reading this post. You made me smile, made me tear, and gave me chills. The unapologetic and unconditional love described (both in your own life and in the film) just…moved me. Thank you!
    (Oh, and I feel like Remy and Papoose deserve a Black Love shout out, too!! <3 )

  6. Khalya, this was so beautiful. I really enjoyed reading this post and seeing how the movie depicts your truth and the essence of Black love. Thank you for sharing your story. After reading this, I feel hopeful for a better tomorrow, and inspired to create it.

    Love,

    Melida

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