The First Thing You Do in the United States of America: An Analysis of the Documentary Elements in “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Paper by Garrett James Wyatt.

“The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths…”
—Reverend Calvin O. Butts, The New York Times: “In Jogger Case, Once Viewed Starkly, Some Skeptics Side With Defendants”

James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a young black couple, Tish Rivers and Fonny Hunt, after Fonny has been arrested and falsely accused of rape; following their love for one another and Tish’s family’s fight to prove Fonny’s innocence. Barry Jenkins’ 2018 adaptation of the novel is able to take the fictional story of If Beale Street Could Talk and make it feel real through his usage of montages, narration, and a non-linear format. In this paper, I plan to analyze the montage at minute 37:39 to minute 38:57 that serves as the Act I turning point leading into Act II wherein the protagonist, Tish (KiKi Layne), narrates the details of the crime Fonny (Stephan James) is wrongly accused of. By analyzing this montage, I hope to show how Jenkins’ usage of montages give this narrative film an almost documentary-like sense highlighting the truth in the above Reverend Calvin O. Butts quote; the character Fonny’s story is, unfortunately, a common story amongst many black men.

The montage that begins at minute 37:39 plays a significant role in the film as it is the first-time viewers learn the details of the crime that Fonny has been wrongly accused of. The audience knows within the first five minutes of the film that Fonny is in jail when on a close shot of Fonny and Tish going in for a kiss, Tish narrates, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2:57-3:05). The film then shifts to a close-up shot of Tish sitting in front of two-way glass as Fonny enters, sitting down on the opposite side of the glass. However, the next thirty minutes of the film, prior to the montage, don’t touch on the crime, rather they cut intermittingly between scenes prior to Fonny’s arrest focusing on the love that Tish and Fonny share, and scenes after his arrest when Tish has learned that she is pregnant with his child. These scenes in the first thirty-seven minutes are cut together in the style of a traditional narrative film, and it isn’t until the montage introduced at minute 37:39 that the audience begins to learn about the harsh reality of Fonny’s situation through the documentary style of this montage.

A traditional documentary is essentially a series of montages woven together to create a certain narrative, deliver a message, or inform an audience of a truth or an opinion. It cuts between interviews, real life or stock footage and photographs, reenactments, and often features narration over the images being shown throughout. Additionally, documentaries often reuse previously seen in the film footage and images to drive home their point. This montage at minute 37:39 uses all of the aforementioned elements of a documentary throughout the montage to drive home its point—Fonny Hunt is innocent of the crime he has been accused of. It cuts between footage of Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios)—the woman who identified Fonny as her rapist in a police line-up—footage of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein)—the officer who arrested Fonny—images of New York including the street where Fonny lives and the street where Fonny has been accused of being, and photographs of Victoria Rogers and her family. All the while, Tish is narrating over the montage, giving her recount of the crime that Fonny has been accused of and why it is improbable that he is the perpetrator.

Tish’s narration throughout the montage is a key element to the film. Like a narrator for a documentary would, Tish presents the facts, giving background information on Victoria Rogers’ life and walking through the scenario of the crime compared to Fonny’s arrest. Her narration, combined with the images it is over, shows the “irregularity and improbability of this sequence of events.” (If Beale Street Could Talk, 38:50-38:55). By narrating the crime, she grounds the audience in the reality of the fictional story, presenting an example of corruption within the justice system.

The footage of Victoria Rogers and Officer Bell used during this montage is unique, because rather than providing reenactments of the events that Tish is narrating, the footage functions more as character profiles. This is the first time the characters are seen in the film and presenting them in this way makes an argument on the politics of the situation, and how the viewer is meant to see the characters in conjunction with Fonny’s placement in jail.

When we see Officer Bell for the first time, we see him in this close shot as Tish narrates Officer Bell’s claims that he saw Fonny running from the scene of the crime, and presents her own argument refuting those claims. Presenting Officer Bell to the viewers for the first time in this close shot is intentional, as the shot greatly resembles a mugshot—the plain, white background, from the shoulders up, the smug look on his face; we even see him from multiple angles as the camera rolls on, on him. With this presentation of Officer Bell, Barry Jenkins is painting him as the criminal in this case; he is close to the crime, the crime against Fonny. With this shot, he is representing decades of police corruption due to racial discrimination. As the montage ends, Officer Bell is seen walking away from the camera, symbolizing that corrupt cops in situations like this often get off scot-free. Additionally, like how a documentary reuses previously seen footage to solidify an argument, this close shot of Officer Bell is reused throughout the film when he is mentioned again.
Whereas, with the first image of Victoria Rogers, which begins this montage, we see her in a closer shot, but still at a distance. Although, she is the victim of the crime Fonny has been accused of, she is distanced from the accusations against Fonny; Jenkins throughout the film does not attempt to criminalize Victoria Rogers, he maintains that she is a victim of a heinous crime, but due to police pressure identifies Fonny as her perpetrator, and like Abderrahmane Sissako with Timbuktu, Jenkins shows the strength of all different kinds of women.

Another interesting facet of this shot of Victoria is that she is seen on a hill. This hill is later seen again in the film when Sharon Rivers (Regina King), Tish’s mother, travels to Puerto Rico to speak with Victoria about taking back her claim that Fonny is who raped her. As we see this hill, Tish narrates, “She has become Pietro’s responsibility, because like the man said about Mount Everest, ‘you’re there.’” (If Beale Street Could Talk,1:33:53-1:33:58). This line about Mount Everest is one the audience has heard earlier in the film. I believe its reappearance in the location where Victoria Rogers is first seen is meant to represent why she claimed Fonny as her rapist, he is who was presented to her by the police—he was there.

Intercut between the footage of Victoria Rogers and Officer Bell are still, black and white photographs. The photographs are a feature of the film’s mise-en-scene that cement the audience in the history and timeframe the film is set in. Like a documentary, they provide background details on the scenario Tish is narrating. By showing images of Victoria Rogers and her family, the audience is presented with a visual framework for who she is along with Tish’s narration. And by displaying images of the street where Victoria lived and was raped, compared to the street where Fonny was arrested, this creates a visual representation of the improbability of Fonny being her assaulter.
When asked about how period black and white photos were included in the film in an interview with Deadline, the editors of the film, Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, stated that they were written into the script by writer-director Barry Jenkins. Having worked with Jenkins in the past, they knew the documentary aspect was intentional. In reference to a montage seen later in the film, McMillon states, “Bringing that photo montage in towards the end just allows you to see that Fonny is one of many.” (“’If Beale Street Could Talk’ Editors Grapple With Structure, Narrative Expectations & The Weight of History.”). I would argue that McMillon’s statement can be applied to the montage beginning at minute 37:39 as well, because in this montage we see a series of black and white photos of Fonny being arrested, ending with him in the back of a police car, looking back at the camera before cutting to the first image of Officer Bell—the mugshot. This montage shows Fonny as just one and the montage at the end of the film, which features photographs of other black men being arrested, shows that he is one of many.

The quote that I began this essay with from Reverend Calvin O. Butts, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths…” (“In Jogger Case, Once Viewed Starkly, Some Skeptics Side With Defendants”), was in reference to the 1989 case in which, despite the lack of evidence, five black and Latino teenage boys—Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—were arrested after being falsely accused of rape. Compare Fonny’s story to the story of the Central Park Five—as the boys have been nicknamed—and you begin to see the pattern of systemic racism in the United States and the reality of police corruption. The montages in the film seek to take on the role of a documentary to highlight this unfortunate universality of Fonny’s story of false imprisonment amongst black men in the United States and to prove the truth to Reverend Calvin O. Butts’ statement—Fonny is just one of many, like the Central Park Five, to fall victim to the first thing you do in America.

Works Cited

Glaberson, William. “In Jogger Case, Once Viewed Starkly, Some Skeptics Side With Defendants.” The New York Times. 8 August 1990.

Grobar, Matt. “’If Beale Street Could Talk’ Editors Grapple With Structure, Narrative Expectations & The Weight of History.” Deadline. 7 November 2018.

Sims, David. “How Barry Jenkins Turned His James Baldwin Obsession Into His Next Movie.” The Atlantic. 8 December 2018.

If Beale Street Could Talk. Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins, performances by KiKi Layne, Stephen James, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein, and Regina King. AnnaPurna Pictures, 2018.

When They See Us. Written and Directed by Ava DuVernay. Netflix, 2019.

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