A sister at the perfume counter

If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins, 2018

Kiki Layne as Tish

This is a beautiful, subtle scene from If Beale Street Could Talk. Kiki Layne’s acting as Tish, her voiceover, the costume and the set design of a high-end New York department store in the mid 1970s communicate volumes about race, class, gender and the power dynamics of working retail. “The customer is always right”, and there’s little you can do about that when you have to get paid. Tish is on public display in the pristine jewel box of the perfume counter, exposed and vulnerable. I love her brown and cream paisley dress, and the camel cashmere scarf and polo neck of her customer. Elegance!

The film is adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Some possibilities for the French perfume Tish was selling might be 1000 by Jean Patou (released 1972), Diorella by Dior, or Coriandre by Jean Couturier (both 1973).

Barry Jenkins directing

The fictional perfume house is named Deux Soeurs (two sisters) – a nice touch for the themes of the film. The film is about the love between Tish and her incarcerated fiance Fonny and their fight to stay together. But it is just as much about the love her family have for Tish, her unborn child, and Fonny.

Her big sister Ernestine is fiercely protective of Tish, and has two of the best lines in the film. “Unbow your head, sister” she instructs, when Tish looks anxious and small as she prepares to tell her family she’s pregnant.

Teyonah Parris as Ernestine

Tish’s family call Fonny’s family round to hear the good news, but the situation disintegrates rapidly. Fonny’s mother spits at Tish “My girls won’t be bringing me no bastards to feed, I can guarantee you that” with her two judgemental snooty daughters backing her up. Ernestine immediately shoots back “That’s because won’t nobody fuck ‘em.” I gasped and laughed out loud at that line.

This post is dedicated to my sister who teaches A level English and film studies, and who is reworking her school’s curriculum to include more black directors and writers.

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