If Beale Street Could Talk is the newest release from award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins. The film is Jenkins’s adaptation of a novella by James Baldwin of the same name. The story, based in 1970s New York City, is about mother-and-wife-to-be Tish, who vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together – including a loft in the West Village – but their plans dissolve when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Go see the movie, but in the meantime, jump back in time for some lush, wonderful portrayals of Greenwich Village.
A Home for Artists
Some of the film’s most charged, beautiful scenes take place in the recreated garden-level artist studio/apartment in a townhouse on Bank Street. Fonny moved here when he decided to leave his family in Harlem and join the artistic community in the West Village.
Mark Friedberg designed the set, and in an interview revealed that
“My argument was that it had to be in a basement, a place where some owner was giving Fonny a spot in the building for favors or money or whatever, and Fonny had come up with a way to sleep there, but it was far from domestic. The kitchen there was made by him. The appliances look like they were found. The wall is just some windows he put up. The bed is a mattress on the floor. The table is a bathtub with a piece of wood over it to make a table. But it’s romantic! I’ve lived like that at a certain point in my life!”
Tish moves into the apartment with Fonny, but, before he was wrongfully arrested, they were looking for a loft of their own, which they found in the West Village.
A Real Loft
The movie shows a West Village of the early 1970s, during which industrial spaces were starting to be turned into housing. Tish and Fonny walk through the loft building, which doesn’t yet have walls or appliances, and then go up to the roof, overlooking the Hudson River and the other buildings in the area.
The couple struggles, in the movie, to find a landlord willing to rent to a young African American couple, but in this scene, a younger landlord whose father owns the building tells them that he is committed to renting their nascent apartments to people who he can tell are in love, regardless of their race. This legacy of anti-racist work runs deep in the Village, and the film faithfully renders this reality.
Tish and Fonny’s life in the Village is full – they take walks, go grocery shopping, and join the Village community of caring and protective neighbors. The couple are defended from a police officer by an Italian shop owner. They dance through the streets, and walk home in the rain down Minetta Lane, which felt like a very beautiful nod to the Village’s historic African-American neighborhood, called “Little Africa,” which was centered around the area of Minetta. Tish and Fonny make the decision to to turn their lifelong friendship into romance one evening in Washington Square Park.
They also become frequent customers at El Faro, which opened in 1927 at 823 Greenwich Street. El Faro was a mainstay Spanish bar and restaurant that was close to 14th Street’s neighborhood which at the time was known as “Little Spain.” It was frequented by legendary writers and artists. El Faro was a place where Fonny and Tish ate, made friends with the staff, danced, and when they were short on cash got dinner on credit. El Faro closed in 2012, but before that it was also recipient of a Village Award from GVSHP.
The themes of love, injustice, poverty, family, justice, religion, and art elevate the story of If Beale Street Could Talk to something truly universal. But on the more local level, Village-lovers will certainly appreciate seeing the West Village as it was.