One of the most powerful scenes in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a long, gut-wrenching dialogue between Fonny (Stephon James) and Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry). Daniel, recently released from prison, runs into his old friend Fonny and visits his home for dinner. As they catch up, Daniel reveals the dark mental space that being incarcerated sent him to and the trauma that keeps him captive.
This scene is a rarity. Conversations about black men’s mental health ― and how it intersects with racism ― aren’t usually seen on the big screen. And unfortunately, these discussions aren’t normalized or encouraged in society.
In partnership with Annapurna films, HuffPost Black Voices hosted a panel on Dec. 13 in New York City ahead of the national release of the film. The seven panelists (Dandre East, Joshua DuBois, Bishop Darren Ferguson, David Johns, Rashid Shabazz, Jason Wilson and the Rev. Alphonso Wyatt) had a powerful conversation about their struggles in conforming to — and breaking free of — the social norms that have historically been imposed on black men.
“My biggest thing is to stop allowing this one [word], ‘masculinity,’ to define us,” said Wilson, the author of Cry Like a Man, adding that a big challenge for black men is to verbalize their pain. “Then I don’t have to resort to using physical strength to express how I feel.”
Johns, the executive director at the National Black Justice Coalition, agreed. “A lie that the world tells us is we’re not supposed to have emotions. That’s compounded in black speak and black religiosity speak, which is to say, ‘Suck it up now and cry later,’ right?”
For the panelists, another big takeaway from the film is how it presents a full and humanized picture of black people that is often absent in other mainstream movies.
“Everything about that movie was the pain, it was the anguish, but the thing that came through most for me was the beauty of it,” said Ferguson, the author of How I Became an Angry Black Man: From Prison to the Pulpit.
“Because in the midst of all this pain and this anguish and this oppression and this hurt was this beauty that shined through — that black people, in their pain, in their anguish, in their oppression and all the things we’ve been through, we’re beautiful,” said Ferguson, whose voice became hoarse with emotion as he recalled scenes from the movie.
The deep love between characters that weaves the film together also had a big impact on the panelists.
“Love without expression or action is just talk. It can’t just be love for the person you love. We have to even learn how to love the unlovable in others,” said Wyatt, a nonprofit leader.
“Our ability or inability to give, express, exchange love — that’s going to be the challenge for some folks for the rest of their lives,” he added. “I believe love is what we have to give, and we shouldn’t be stingy.”
Watch a segment from the conversation above.