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If Beale Street Could Talk

Unrestricted M: Contains violence, offensive language and sex scenes

Spoiler alert

This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this movie.

About the film

If Beale Street Could Talk is a romantic drama film based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin. Set in 1970’s New York, the story is presented in a non-linear structure and tells the story of young lovers Tish and Fonny. Their lives take a tragic turn when Fonny is wrongfully imprisoned for a rape crime he didn't commit. With the couple expecting a child, Tish and her family race against time to prove Fonny’s innocence and seek justice.

Poster for the film, If Beale Street Could Talk

Date registered: 21/02/2019

Classification criteria: Sex

There are two sex scenes. These are at a reasonably low level. Tish and Fonny have a slow-burning and tender sexual encounter, taking place at Fonny’s studio apartment. After a date, they slowly sit down on the bed, kiss and undress. Tish’s breasts are briefly and partially seen. Fonny gently lies on top of her and slowly begins to thrust. Tish makes an initial expression of pain (off camera) as it is clearly her first time. The sex is consensual. Filming cuts to their implied climax. They later have celebratory sex after finally securing their own apartment. The scene opens with the sex already taking place, showing Fonny thrusting on top of Tish in bed. They are seen only briefly from the shoulders up, sweaty and panting. Climax is quickly implied, and the scene ends with the couple in bed in a happy glow.

A woman rests her head against a man's shoulder. They look to the side of the image.

Classification criteria: Crime

There are some low level depictions of theft, but these are well contextualised as it is clear the characters lack the means to help themselves in any other way.

Police corruption is a running theme. The film opens and closes with archive photographs of white police officers apprehending African-American men, and African-American prisoners engaged in hard labour. It is made clear that African-Americans are routinely jailed on false allegations or trumped-up charges, and generally persecuted by a white-controlled justice system.

Fonny is jailed for allegedly raping a Latina woman, Victoria Rogers. Officer Bell, a police officer who had previously tried to arrest Fonny, falsely accuses Fonny of the crime by providing false eyewitness testimony of him running from the scene of the crime. It is strongly implied that he also tells Victoria to identify Fonny as her attacker. Despite the fact that it was almost impossible for Fonny to be at the scene, the case against him is made strong by Bell and Victoria’s testimony. Fonny, like many black men at the time, takes a plea in order to avoid the death penalty.

There are several references to rape as characters discuss the case. This is often in the form of legalese or poetic narration that would go over the heads of younger viewers. When Sharon confronts Victoria it is clear that Victoria has no idea who her rapist was or what he looked like. Victoria becomes upset by Sharon’s questioning and starts screaming, as if she has been triggered by flashbacks to the assault. Overall the theme of rape is dealt with delicately.

A man holds a phone in his hand. He is in the middle of talking.

Classification criteria: Violence

Things get tense when Fonny’s family find out about Tish’s pregnancy. Fonny’s mother calls the couple “sexually immoral” and “sinful” for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Fonny’s sisters tell Tish that she is worthless and unable to raise a child. Fonny’s father hits his wife across the face after she makes an inappropriate comment. She is left stunned and humiliated but does not appear to suffer any injury or significant pain. This is the strongest scene of violence in the film.

Fonny and his friend Daniel speak vaguely about the ‘terrible things’ that happen in prison. The viewer understands that physical assault occurs, but none is actually shown. We get an indication of the violent environment when Fonny presents with a slight cuts to his face one day.

A woman looks at items in a luxury shop

Classification criteria: Offensive language

Highly offensive language is used occasionally. Heated language is used during the family confrontation: Tish’s sister, Ernestine says to Fonny’s sister, “You dried up yellow cunt”, and tells Fonny’s mother that no one will want to “fuck” her daughters. Very occasionally characters swear in times of stress, for example “Get the fuck out”, and Sharon cries “Fuck!” in despair. There are a few uses of the word “nigger” by African Americans toward each other in on-threatening ways, for example “Funky niggers” and “This country don’t like niggers”. In this context it is unlikely to be considered highly offensive. Ernestine jokes with Tish, “You smell like a Louisiana whore”. Overall, the language is used to a low extent and in a manner that is unlikely to seriously harm young viewers.

Decision Summary

If Beale Street Could Talk is a touching and realistic love story. The film highlights racial injustices and police in 1970s America. It is well made and has won industry awards. The two sex scenes are relatively mild and brief. Although these scenes may be startling they are unlikely to seriously harm younger viewers. The film deals with the theme of rape in a restrained way and not in a manner likely to shock and disturb. The sex scenes, in combination with brief low-level violence and occasional use of highly offensive language indicate that the film is intended for older viewers. In saying this, the themes are not intended for children and they are unlikely to be enthralled by the slow-moving storyline. The film is therefore classified unrestricted but recommended as more suitable for mature audiences. This unrestricted classification does not impede on the right to freedom of expression.

Contact the Information Unit if you require further information on a classification decision.

M label
Unrestricted M: Contains violence, offensive language and sex scenes