As a biracial woman who grew up in a predominately white suburb, I always felt compelled to blend in. All the kids at school noticed that my parents looked quite different from each other and that, consequently — I looked quite different from them. The biggest thing that stood out to my classmates wasn’t even my skin tone; rather, it was my hair. It was different, but not in any way that they could describe, other than making a spectacle over how “weird” it was and how “strange” it felt. So, the way I aimed to control how people perceived me was mostly through assimilating my hair. When I was in third grade, I started straightening my hair brittle and tying it back taut to blend in. It wasn’t until a few months ago, at 19 years old, half of my life later, that I thoroughly let go of all my insecurities — shaving my head to start fresh, and proud.
That’s just my story, and I promise I didn’t tell it for no reason. The insecurities I had at a young age are representative of a universal reality about the perception of Black Americans in society — one that is omnipresent in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. Generally, the way society views Black Americans is significantly tied to how much they cater to the adoption of western standards of beauty — hair being one of the most common points of contention. Discrimination and conflicts over hair do not solely occur between black people and other races; it’s also prevalent within the black community itself. Some stereotypes of wearing natural hair are that it is deviant, unkempt, unprofessional, and dirty. Some stereotypes within the Black community about alternatives like relaxers, wigs, and weaves, is that it is a symbol of shame in regards to one’s heritage. None of these stereotypes are correct, but regardless of how hair is worn, there will always be a political statement thrust upon it. Barry Jenkins understands this and uses hair as a symbol that underlies many plot points in If Beale Street Could Talk. This representation was only a detail of the film, subtly included, but massively significant.
The most lucid presentation of the relationship with hair and perception is in the confrontation scene with Tish’s family and Fonny’s family. Tish’s family is very laid back, natural, and emotionally in tune. They are effortless in their dispositions: they are not trying to be anything or portraying any facade. They are not concerned with what others think, as their hair is natural, and their clothes are loud and casual, but still fashionable. Fonny’s mother and sisters are vain, arrogant, and snobby — perception is vital to them. They see themselves as more sophisticated and elevated than Tish’s family. Their clothing is more subdued, dressier, and they speak more formally— they are also very religious.
If Beale Street Could Talk has multiple clues that suggest a very Western sense of superiority — what American culture defines as upright. Their hair is styled outside of their natural texture, and whether that’s through relaxers, irons, weaves, or wigs, we are not told. However, there is a clear distinction between the wardrobe and hair styling that contributes to the attitudes of the opposing characters. Whether they are conscious of it or not, Fonny’s family expresses more traditional American beauty standards and beliefs. They feel superior for it, and they shame those who are not — shown in the scene not only through their dialogue but also through the juxtaposition of hair. While the scene itself is not about hair, it was a conscious decision that portrays a duality between the two families and their attitudes and perspectives.
Throughout the majority of the movie, Tish’s hair is worn in her signature, slick front with a fro in the back style, but there is a shift in the styling when she is at work. Through clips accompanied by voiceovers, Tish explains how she is seen, how she has to smile twice as hard, and how she is objectified by the men who walk past her. This entire voiceover illustrates how Tish is perceived by others in the workplace and is paired with the most styled hair she wears in the whole film. It’s details like this that are magnified through their subtlety.
However, one of the most emotionally striking scenes in the film is when Sharon stares at herself in the mirror, carefully and nervously putting on her wig. The emotional weight of the responsibility of going to Puerto Rico, and the way she portrays herself while there, are intrinsically tied. She is there to get a job done: to reason with people in equally damning, yet opposing, states of mind as herself. The choice to wear a wig, rather than her natural hair, is essential. It’s a reality black people have faced since they’ve been in America. The truth is that Sharon didn’t want to give anyone any reason to discredit her— the way she is perceived at such a pivotal moment can largely contribute to whether she is acknowledged or listened to — whether Fonny is convicted or acquitted. Adjustments are made in the name of assimilation.
Throughout If Beale Street Could Talk, we see juxtaposition in the hair of opposing characters, as well as contrasts in the hair of individual characters that are dependent on the circumstances they are in. These oppositions and nuances are powerful, conscious choices that reflect the interpretations of black hair in American society. They are not random or fabricated for the film — these moments are mirrors into the reality of racial perception in the United States, within the black community, and outside of it. Seeing these distinctions in the film resonated with me and my history, as well as acknowledging that it is a shared history amongst Black Americans. I left If Beale Street Could Talk feeling seen, knowing that it was a film concerned with detail and cognizant of authenticity. I was convinced, for the second time, that Barry Jenkins, once again, is a master at relaying multiple facets of Black American truth on the big screen.