This is a simple story which is intended to be emblematic of the young African American experience in New York City during the early 1970s. It begins with a love story between Alonzo Hunt (Fonny) and Tish Rivers. The two have been friends since early childhood.
Fonny was an aspiring sculptor who specialized in wood as his medium. He like small, abstract pieces. He is a man who is very authentic in his worldview approach to life. His friendship with Tish develops into adult love and they begin to be intimate with an eye toward marriage. They try to find an apartment that they could rent, but there was little in the way of decent housing available to African Americans. Still, they persisted.
One evening while shopping at a bodega a Latino man makes unwanted advances to Tish. Fonny steps in and tosses the man to the sidewalk. Then comes the beat cop, Officer Bell, to survey the scene. He is a white racist who wants to take Fonny in for questioning. The bodega owner, a woman, intercedes for Fonny, but Officer Bell has his eyes out for bringing Fonny in.
Not long afterwards a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers, is raped. She really does not know who did it, but Officer Bell convinces her that it is Fonny and this suggestion makes her pick out Fonny in a lineup. Despite an alibi (being with a friend, who has just gotten out of jail) and the implausibility of Fonny being in two places so far apart at the same time, Fonny is found to be subject to reasonable suspicion and therefore is arrested and put in jail pending trial. Fonny languishes in prison. No “speedy trial” for him (despite this being a constitutional right).
Tish visits her lover regularly. They begin calling each other “husband” and “wife”—even though they are not married in the eyes of the state. When Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant with his child, it is even more poignant for him to be languishing in prison awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit.
When the two families are told that Tish is pregnant, Fonny’s mother has a fit using as a cover her intense Prostestant Christian religious beliefs. This creates a scene in which Fonny’s father knocks his wife down in the Rivers’ apartment.
The two fathers, Frank Hunt (Fonny’s father) and Joseph Rivers (Tish’s father), get together to steal goods in the garment district and then re-sell them (they act as “middlemen”). The point is to raise money to pay the lawyer’s costs.
Victoria Rogers flees to Puerto Rico. Sharon Rivers, Tish’s mother, gets a plane ticket and tries to convince Victoria to change her testimony. It doesn’t work.
Back in New York, Fonny decides to cop a plea (even though he is innocent) and he is serving his time even as his son grows up. In the poignant closing scene, Fonny is allowed visitation of his family in a family room (supervised by several policemen). Fonny’s son draws pictures with crayons of when his dad is coming home. Tragically, these tender years are lost to Fonny due to a poor system that has no “checks and balances” for young African American men.
It is a story of one family, but it is meant to be more broadly emblematic.
The overwhelming theme is that due to a system that has broad racist assumptions, innocent people can become crushed. If such injustice happens over and over again, then it poisons the social structure of society. Such is the situation with the Rivers and Hunt families. They suffer unjustifiably, but their pain is but one cry in a cacophony of sorrow.
One interesting philosophical question that is raised is whether it is right for Mr. Hunt and Mr. Rivers to engage in theft in order to save Fonny. This is similar to the “Heinz Dilemma” in feminist ethics. In that case there is a wife who has a disease that will kill her unless she gets a certain drug. The pharmacist won’t lower his price (too high for the family to pay). The question is then asked whether the husband should steal the drug to save his wife. Kohlberg (the creator of the Heinz Dilemma) thinks that it is clear that the husband should steal the drug. This brought push-back by feminist philosophers such as Carol Gilligan, who in her book In a Different Voice, demurs and thinks that some constructed dialog might be the better course. In Barry Jenkin’s script from James Baldwin’s novel, the point of view is in favor of Kohlberg over Gilligan.
The movie is an apologue told in strong strokes. This is appropriate for fictive narrative philosophy since it is one option for setting out an argument for a position. In this case the conclusion of the argument is: “The United States’ society in the early 1970s in New York (supposedly a liberal city regarding racial and ethnic difference) is deeply racist by the ruling European-descent power structure. This unfair system grinds innocent people up and ruins lives. If this happens in one of the so-called tolerant cities, it is far worse in the other parts of the country. The plot, as set out, makes plausible this claim.
Some professors from Literature Departments, may demur since the “show but not tell” strategy is dogma. However, since I do not hold to this as a critical principle for all of fiction, I come down in favor of the presentation and recommend it broadly to audiences across America.
Attempt: ***/ Accomplished: *****