Comparing realism in films

Realistic films are films that the audience can relate to because they could be perceived as real life. In the film industry, realism is a period of development when filmmakers strove to make movies that were more like real life. Two films that exemplify realism are Five Easy Pieces and If Beale Street Could Talk. In both films, the directors use artistic creativity to portray actors feeling and emotions to the audience as if they are living in the characters world. Both independent films are set in the 1970’s, both share similar characteristics and scenarios, but they are about very different realistic situations. One film uses American Realism with a story about blue-collar workers and the other targets racial realism. Both films portray complex characters using close-ups to bring the viewer into the minds of the characters. Both films are in search of an audience that can relate to the characters in the films, one through blue-collar work and relationships and the other through race relationships and wrongful incarceration. Both films are aiming at an entirely different audience. Both films characters feelings are shown through close-ups.

Five Easy Pieces, by Ben Rafelson is a movie that epitomizes New American realism and Blue-Collar Realism. The movie follows Robert Eroica Dupea, an oil field worker in Los Angeles, and his life with his Tammy Wynette loving waitress girlfriend, Rayette. Bobby has the typical life as a blue-collar worker who is not overly enthusiastic about the relationship with his girlfriend. Bobby finds out that his father is ill, so he heads back home to spend time with his family. Bobby has a regular, humdrum life that stands for the ordinary social realities in 1970. Bobby regularly has opportunities to play the piano, which gives a glimpse into the talent Bobby has as a musician. His talent sparks curiosity in the viewer as to how he is gifted at the piano. When Bobby visits his sister, who is also a fabulous piano player, we find out that he has an estranged relationship with his father, who is ill. Bobby decides to travel to Washington to visit his family. He takes Rayette on the journey and has interesting incidents along the way. His misery with life is a reflection of him giving up his dreams. The audience realizes through the movie that Bobby doesn’t have any dreams, he doesn’t care about much of anything, especially his annoying, pregnant girlfriend.

What is interesting in Five Easy Pieces is the lack of empathy the audience feels for Bobby. Through all the things that he goes through there is never a moment when the viewer feels as if he is a good guy. He has been given chances in life but never took any of them. He has talent and doesn’t use it. He has a girlfriend that loves him, and he treats her poorly. She is pregnant and he is irritated by it. He has a caring and astute family, but he isn’t close to them. When given an opportunity to care for him because he finds out his father is ill, he goes straight to cheat on his girlfriend. There is never a moment of empathy to feel for Bobby. Bobby decides to go see his father, but the viewer wonders if he is simply escaping from Rayette. His decision to take her with him is a surprise and the audience likes him for a moment.  The famous diner scene shows us how clever Bobby is but once again, he shows us his stubbornness and anger.

During the family dinner scene in Washington Rayettes makeup is very caked on, she is always done up. Close-ups show this regularly when she is talking. The camera regularly pan to Bobby with irritated expressions. The class difference between Bobby’s family and Rayette is noticeable here. Bobby has kept Rayette in a hotel room away from his family. Bobby comes to Rayettes defense when her class comes into question. This shows the audience why Bobby left this lifestyle.

Bobby speaks to his dad and explains his behaviors, still, there is no understanding of why Bobby does anything. These close ups show Bobby with care and emotion. After the apology to his dad, he leaves his families home in Washington with Rayette. AS he drives aways there are more clos-ups of Rayette, her makeup messy and her pouty look. Bobby is still irritated. Bobby visualizes himself in the mirror, contemplating his lexistence. The audience is brought in by intense close-ups. The end of the movie is unsatisfying as Bobby leaves Rayette at a gas station, he jumps in a truck with someone and takes off. He does leave the car for Rayette. The final scene Rayette is looking for Bobby as he heads off in a truck. Once again, the audience has disdain for Bobby.

The lack of love Bobby has for everyone is very different than the characters in If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk, directed by Berry Jenkins is a romantic drama about a Black couple living in Harlem in the 1970’s. The film is an adaptation from a novel written by James Baldwin from 1974. The film was released in 2018 and is about racial realism. Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt have been lifelong friends who began a romantic relationship when they entered early adulthood. The two experience racism while searching for an apartment in Harlem. The couple constantly run into struggles because of race. Tish and Fonny have a run in with a man in a grocery store. The incident introduces them to a racist cop named Officer Bell. Fonny soon finds himself accused of the rape of Victoria Rogers and Officer Bell happens to be the witness who claims he saw Fonny fleeing the scene. Although Fonny couldn’t have been there and did have an alibi, he is arrested and placed in jail. Meanwhile, Tish finds out she is pregnant and tells Fonny the news while he is incarcerated. Tish focuses on proving Fonny’s innocence. The story travels back and forth during happy times, scattered with family struggles. The audience learns that the love between the two is real and strong.

Although both Five Easy Pieces and If Beale Street Could Talk use realism and themes such as couple dynamics, pregnancy out of wedlock and family values. They do not portray them similarly.

The bond shared between Tish and Fonny is a beautiful one.  The audience is shown many closeups that show their emotional connection. If Beale Street Could Talk uses a narrator, Tish, to show the audience, the storyline, and the strong connection between the two lovers. Five Easy Pieces does not show any strong relationships and bonds.

The audience for both films is different. If Beale Street Could Talk takes on race issues in the 1970’s such as racial profiling by police. Although the book was written in 1974, the film wasn’t released until 2018. The audience is bi-racial and 2018 was a year fueled with anti-racism and hate filled incidents. The film portrays a strong family bond. Five Easy Pieces is about the rough life of a man who has missed out on living his dreams. Instead of being a musician, he is a blue-collar worker. The audience is the average blue-collar worker except that Bobby is from an astute family and is a classic pianist. His life is strangely chaotic by choice. During the time of this film’s release, Hollywood was going aways from romanticism and towards realism. Film directors were doing lower budget films and the directors became “anti-studio.”

While Tish and Fonny don’t want a chaotic life, a chaotic life chose them. The director uses close-ups to show the love between the characters, but many of the scenes are narrated by Tish. The characters often look directly at the camera, as if they are talking to the viewer. The audience is brought into the mentality of the character through both narrative and closeups.

If Beale Street Could Talk mixes different social classes to show racism. is made clear white people treats the Black characters. The backgrounds are colorful and glamorous instead of gritty.  Tish is placed in a department store and the scenes are colorful. The realism is shown by the difference in how races are treated in regular life at a department store and other situations. For example, in one scene, Tish is working in the department store selling perfume. A Black man walks up to smell the perfume and sprays it on himself. The white man does this totally different; he sprays the perfume of Tish’s hand and then smells her skin. The camera pans back and forth of close-ups of both Tish, the Black man’s smelling the perfume and the white man smelling the perfume. This draws the audience into the scene while Tish is narrating her feelings. Actors are directly looking into the camera and involve the viewer as if they are in the scene. Racism is placed in the forefront of the film when close-ups of Tish and narration explain the difference of how white men and Black men treat her in the store.

Social class for Five Easy Pieces doesn’t use glamour, instead, the characters flaws are placed directly on film. Bobby is disillusioned about life. The viewer doesn’t understand his complexity until he plays the piano. Bobby comes from an upper-class family and is a piano savant. Rayette, Bobby’s girlfriend, is portrayed as lower-class by her dialect and attire.  The background is realistic of where blue-collar workers hang out, the bowling alley and diners that are typical of 1970. Bobby is always annoyed by his girlfriend; he cheats on her and hides her from his family.

Both films highlight the topic of pregnancy out of wedlock as an important part of realism. But this situation is handled quite differently by the characters in the films. The male reaction to the pregnancy news is distinct in each film. Bobby leaves his girlfriend at a gas station while she is pregnant. Fonny wants to marry his girlfriend and wants to get out of jail to help raise his child. Stereotypes of having a child out of wedlock were an increasing tend in the 1970’s. This is reflected in both the films, although we clearly see the strength in the love and devotion with the Black family. Fonny’s mother has religious beliefs that are very strong against being pregnant while not married. We see the complete opposite in Bobby.

The difference in realism in both films highlights the relationship between people. One being torn apart because of racial tensions and false imprisonment. The other by choice and lack of motivation. Bobby is irritated by his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He doesn’t wan to deal with a child and put forth any effort to have a family. On the other hand, Tish and Fonny want desperately to be together but aren’t allowed to. In one film the realism of true love that can’t be together is clear. In the other there is a lack of true love. Both directors used realism in their films, one about blue-collar workers and the other about race and police brutality in the 1970’s.

Five Easy Pieces and If Beale Street Could Talk make use of character closeups. Close ups are a way of helping the audience feel emotionally connected to the actors. Closeups are used where the actors are speaking directly into and looking at the camera in If Beale Street Could Talk. This is not done in Five Easy Pieces.

In the scene where Bobby finds out Rayette is pregnant, he is told by his best friend Elton. This particular scene utilizes close-ups to show the emotions of both Elton and Bobby. Elton however, is not framed centered in the scene during the closeups. The viewer sees the oil fields in the background. Bobby, in his anger is shown centered in his close-ups. It is perceived by the audience that Elton is the one who has his priorities straight. Instead of being happy, Bobby is outraged, does the opposite of what he should do and quits his job. Bobby has absolutely no desire to become a father and settle down. The audience is drawn into Bobby’s life and that he feels trapped and acts impulsively. The director draws the audience into the frustration, although it is impossible to feel sorry for Bobby. The plot becomes more disheartening when Elton is arrested, and we find out that Bobby’s only friend has been accused of robbing a gas station. Everyone in this film is living true desperation of bad financial times. These are two blue-collar men who do not have their lives together.

In contrast, In If Beale Street Could Talk, the first frames of the movie the audience shows clos-ups of Alonzo and Tish, insight is given into how much the couple love each other.  The moment Fonny is told in jail by Tish that he is going to be a father, the close-up frames show their emotional reactions. The audience is aware immediately that Alonzo is happy about being a father because he loves Tish. The frame is frozen on Alonzo’s emotion while Tish narrates what is going on with the couple at that moment. Action begins again and it is clear that the two are happy about bringing a new life into the world. While the two talk on a phone between the jail glass, the entire scene is close ups of their faces. This draws the audience into the reality that Fonny is stuck in jail and he is concerned about Tish raising a baby on her own. Instantly, the audience feels empathy and learns about the true love they have. The situation is beyond their control because of racism.

His goal is to get out of jail so that he can be a father. However, when Tish informs her family, they are supportive and happy, but Fonny’s family reaction is quite different. They are religious and believe the baby was conceived in sin.

Close-up shots are a powerful and dramatic way to show detail in cinema. In both Five Easy Pieces and If Beale Street Could Talk, the director carefully uses close-ups to draw the audience in to the characters emotions.

In Five Easy Pieces there are moments of close ups where the viewer can see makeup flaws and sweat on Rayette. This draws the viewer into the realism factor because Rayette is a waitress and aspiring singer, and classless according to Bobby, it helps to see her flaws up close.

The director in If Beale Street Could Talk utilizes close-ups of the characters, many times while the characters are looking directly into the camera lens. The director chose the style to make them feel very intimate to the audience. The choice was made as something different than other films. The director chose this choice of framing for the audience to feel more of the physical performance of the actors.

If Beale Street Could Talk may be a romance, but the story surrounds racial realism and life in the 1970’s for Black Americans. Although the couple tries to do everything right and in the name of love, racism is always an issue for them.  The audience response to the couple creates empathy and the need to believe in them. The audience wants the two to succeed and be together. In Five Easy Pieces it is hard to find empathy for Bobby because there aren’t any nice moments in the film that crate sympathy. All the bad things that he encounters are from his own doing. On the other hand, Tish and Fonny experience struggles due to racism.


Psychological Realism vs Flashbacks and romantic visuals

The directors in both use close-ups to bring the audience into the emotions of the actors and convey realism through the emotions of the characters.


a quest for innocence and true love and a desire for peace and family, the other of loathing and self-pity and disdain for everyone around him.


Non-linear structure

Fonny’s mother is holier-than-thou

Evil Officer Bell looks creepy Calls Fonny “boy” racial slur. Calls Tish “Brown Sugar.”

Power of Love vs no love.

The audience for both films is different.

Getting the audience to respond in different ways.

Awards for each film.

Five Easy Pieces

Nominated for four Academy Awards and Five Golden Globe Awards

Released in 1970

“An important touchstone of the New Hollywood era.”

If Beale Street Could Talk

Nominated for 3 Academy Awards and 3 Golden Globes

Released in 2018

Five Easy Pieces is New American Realism and/or Blue-Collar Realism. New American Realism rejected Romanticism. New American Realism depicted contemporary social realities and the lives of ordinary people.

If Beal Street Could Talk is Racial Realism

The endings of both films give the audience an entirely different feeling.

One adapted from a book.


Psychological Realism vs Flashbacks and romantic visuals


Realism in film is the concern for reality and the use of familiar people and instances that occur in actual life. Artists often use realism to present honest unidealized views of everyday life. Both Independent films, Five Easy Pieces and If Beale Street Could Talk use realism depicting times in the early 1970’s. One film uses American Realism about blue-collar workers and the other targets instances due to racial realism. Each film portrays complex characters and scenes to tell a story, one, a quest for innocence and true love and a desire for peace and family, the other of loathing and self-pity and disdain for everyone around him.  Both films are in search of an audience that can relate to the characters in the films, one through blue-collar work and relationships and the other through race relationships and wrongful incarceration. Both films are aiming at an entirely different audience.

American realism is the type of film making that reflected the regular lives of blue collar, middle- and low-class workers. Characters were the opposite of glamorous, they were regular working people with complex lives that were made interesting by characters interesting lives. In American realism, the audience is given an escape from their lives by intricate character complexities. The stories are grounded in reality, causing the audience to be relatable to the lives of the characters.




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