The first time we see Victoria Rogers in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” she stands solemn and alone on what appears to be a rooftop against the backdrop of a dusky sky. She doesn’t say a word. Instead, in voice-over, the film’s protagonist, Tish, introduces Victoria as the woman who has declared she was sexually assaulted by Fonny, Tish’s fiancé.
The scene doesn’t vilify Victoria, but it does present her in direct opposition to the movie’s adoring portrait of Tish and Fonny: After a beautiful, tender flashback to the couple’s first night together, a powerful expression of mutual love, there’s an abrupt tonal shift to Victoria’s scene, with composer Nicholas Britell’s haunting score evoking a sense of ominousness and sorrow beneath her image. Tish’s voice-over is punctuated with pointed resentment toward Victoria.
She’s resentful because Fonny could not have been the assailant. As Tish explains, Fonny was at home with her and a friend at the time, far from Victoria’s attack. And a white police officer — who has had a menacing encounter with Fonny — seems to have coerced Victoria into the accusation. Officer Bell even claims to have seen Fonny running away.
The pervasiveness of injustice is a persistent theme of “Beale Street,” and it held firmly in my mind as I read, for the first time, the James Baldwin novel on which the movie is based, and, later, while I watched Jenkins’ adaptation, twice. The couple and their families pay dearly for the false accusation, and it wasn’t hard for me to connect their sense of injustice to the long and sordid history of black men falsely accused of rape (and often paying for it with their lives). It lingers right there in the text.
Yet the role that Victoria, a Puerto Rican mother of three, plays in “Beale Street” complicates that familiar historical narrative in the present moment, especially when our culture is more attuned to the pain and anguish of rape victims’ accounts than it was when Baldwin published “Beale Street” nearly 45 years ago.
Though Victoria’s accusation roils Tish (KiKi Layne), Fonny (Stephan James) and their families, who sacrifice everything to ensure he has the best legal counsel possible, Victoria is written and portrayed (by Emily Rios) sympathetically. As I wrestled with “Beale Street,” the many accounts from assault victims that have made headlines in the past year weren’t far from my mind, right alongside the story’s clear indictment of a legal system that upholds racism by any means necessary.
It’s not until Victoria finally gets to speak for herself in the movie’s third act that I felt the full weight of her circumstances. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), has gone to Puerto Rico to try to convince Victoria to retract her accusation; it is a “journey to save Fonny’s soul,” as Tish puts it.
Victoria is resistant, clearly re-traumatized by having to remember that night all over again. Wary at first, she is adamant that she did see Fonny during the attack. As Sharon holds up a photo of Fonny and Tish, Victoria looks at it, then back at Sharon, with contempt: “One thing I can tell, lady, you ain’t never been raped,” she spews.
“They took me down there,” Victoria continues, “and they told me to pick him out.” At this point, her voice becomes a bit more high-pitched and cracked. “So that’s what I did. I picked him out.”
The sequence unfolds close to the way Baldwin originally wrote it, with several lines lifted directly from the book. But it takes on an added significance that Baldwin couldn’t have anticipated. While the story primes us to side with Sharon and her family, I found it painful to hear her echo statements we’ve heard from men and women coming to the defense of their friends, partners or family members who have been accused of sexual assault.
Even though it’s clear Fonny didn’t do it — and most of those real-life cases involved people who were previously acquainted with each other — Sharon’s suggestion that he’s innocent because she’s “known him all my life” feels like an unintentional denial of Victoria’s experience as a victim.
And yet Sharon is in an impossible situation, compounded by the fact that Fonny is black, and their family is not wealthy. To reach out to Victoria is the only hope Fonny has left.
In a 1966 essay for the Nation published a few years before “Beale Street,” Baldwin assessed systemic racism in the workforce, law enforcement and education in the United States. He described instances of police brutality against blacks and Puerto Ricans in his birthplace, Harlem; textbooks “controlled by the Southern oligarchy”; and the fact that people of color were “virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center.” He noted, “None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government.”
This is the conundrum of “Beale Street” — for Baldwin, nothing is unrelated. Fonny is in jail because a white man harassed Tish at the market and he defended her against the man’s advances, only to come to the attention of Officer Bell. Fonny is in jail because a woman has been raped, and Officer Bell, seeing this woman as the perfect vessel to enact retaliation upon Fonny, pins the crime on him. Fonny is in jail because the woman has left the city, most likely whisked away with the help of the prosecutor’s office, so that his trial can be postponed, and eventually lost and forgotten in the blur of the city’s many dubious cases against black people. Fonny is in jail because a system of laws wields and upholds racism.
All the central characters, including Victoria, suffer for it. At the conclusion of that scene between Victoria and Sharon, Victoria breaks down screaming and is helped away by neighbors. Sharon is left alone in the courtyard, still holding the picture of Fonny and Tish; she buries her head in her hands.
King and Rios play the scene movingly, conveying the push and pull of a tense exchange in which it’s clear that no matter what the outcome, both women will end with their spirits broken. It was the most difficult moment for me to endure as a reader and a viewer.