I always desired to see a black love story on screen. Not a rom-com, or later-in-life love (though this would be nice too), but an authentic love story with young, black lovers. I know this could never be The Notebook, that though there would be a happily ever after, it would not be conventional because it couldn’t be. If Beale Street Could Talk captures this love between two young black people that though undying does not go without adversity.
The film and book delineate the courtship of Fonny and Tish, Harlem youth who become lovers after a lifetime of a familial-like affiliation. Their adversity manifests in the systemic forces that puppeteer the action and ideologies that inundate the film. Fonny’s female relatives, for example, detest Tish, and Fonny for that matter, due to the poison of color and class under racism’s umbrella. Additionally, the film delineates how a crooked law system that hunts black men like prey, poses a challenge to the black community at large. So while Barry Jenkins’s rendition of James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk seeks to fill the dearth of black people loving each other on the big screen, it is of great detriment to the communal service Baldwin performs with If Beale Street Could Talk, to label the conveyed narrative merely a love story between a black man and a black woman. It is the relationship between black people and a flawed justice system that anchors the film/novel.
Director Barry Jenkins succeeds where he always does—the visual. As a viewer, I always wonder how much of the visual is superficial and how much is substance. I would place Jenkins somewhere in the middle—his showcase of “black love” seemingly the muse for his career. Contrary to what Jenkins depicted in Oscar Award Winning Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk places cisgender love in its center. Jenkins imbued extensive praise for featuring ebony-hued black stars loving one another on the big screen. Though necessary I could not help but view this feature, of a black couple not immersed in drug or street life, as somewhat of an apology for the caricatured images that gained him his Oscar. In the novel, James Baldwin states the following
“It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you” (Baldwin 42). This statement is also a summation of Jenkins efforts of a curator of the black experience. Etched in his portrayal of black love, is Jenkins attempt to prove that he loves black people.
Jenkins illustrates this love through the focus on the “brownness” of black culture. Specifically, the color line between Tish and Fonny’s families is greatly emphasized in Baldwin’s novel. However, in the film, the actors are varying degrees of “brown” which make the insult “yellow c*nt” more figurative than literal in Jenkin’s film. Given that Jenkins’s choice employs actors who would encounter more limitations than opportunities making this change a significant stride in the right direction. As far as symbolism goes anyway…
The movie, like the novel, features the testimony of a Puerto Rican woman as the nail in Fonny’s systemized coffin. Though both the novel and the film present the Puerto Rican woman as systemized through physical and mental rape, her victimization cages a black man like an animal, depicting the person of color battle as not only incongruent to the black experience, but harmful.
In juxtaposing If Beale Could Street Could Talk the movie with the book it becomes obvious that Barry Jenkins has a vastly different agenda than James Baldwin. This agenda is perhaps best illustrated in three distinctions from the book and the film:
- The Jewish Landlord
In the film, Jenkins features a moment where a Jewish landlord remarks that he “just appreciates people who love each other.” This portrayal projects the white savior figure that has seemingly become customary in black films about race, ie Black KKKlansman (2018) and The Hate You Give (2018). In this depiction, the landlord seems fixated on Tish and Fonny as sexual beings. Yes, the reproductive factor of black love is imperative to survival, but Baldwin’s portrayal depicts the Jewish landlord as subjecting his prospective tenants to a racialized (and sexualized) gaze that counters what his deed seems to suggest. It is also remiss to not acknowledge that the landlord is, in reality, a businessman, not a good person. His actions only appear “good” because they are encased in a racialized frame.
2. Obscured Oppression
Daniel, brilliantly played by Brian Tyree Henry, is perhaps the most compelling character in both the book and the film. Yet the film robs Daniel of his depth. Daniel, a childhood friend of Fonny, comes back into Fonny’s life after a prison sentence. Daniel is broken and traumatized, the details of his trauma left to the imagination of the viewers.
In the novel, Baldwin does not rely on the imagination of his viewers. Baldwin, through Tish’s voice, reveals that Daniel had been framed by police and raped in prison. Daniel’s sexual assault, however, does not correspond to sexual orientation—but the power vested in sexuality. The sexual violence cast against Daniel symbolically captures a mental attack of emasculation cast onto the black man through a physical act.
I was personally disappointed by this omission, as black men and sexual assault are rarely acknowledged /discussed with regard to black men at all, specifically, cisgender males. Additionally, Daniel predates the individual and collective tragedy of Kalief Browder— a young black teen criminalized solely because of his blackness. Both fact and fictive manifestations of the black male scapegoat appear in homage to the Jesse Washingtons of the world—the projected villains of white hegemony.
Though arguably a ripple in a larger pond, Baldwin’s depiction notes that the war against black men is not new nor evaporating in the facade of change. If Beale Could Street Could Talk exposes the war on black men as a war on the black community. Specifically, that these attacks complicate black love. Complications however, do not equate to impossibility.
3. Fonny’s Father
Another distinction between the movie and the film is the ending. The film leaves viewers with a portrait of the black family violently severed by the injustice of the law. Viewers learn that Fonny takes a plea and he is to love Tish and his son with the tight grip of the penetentirary system around his neck like a noose. The film’s ending, like Daniel’s obscured abuse, ensures the audience a comfort level that allows them to see some components of black life but not to be disturbed by it. This is the bold line of demarcation that separates Jenkins from Baldwin. Baldwin writes in a manner to scorch his reader into a discomfort that mimics the black experience. Baldwin seeks to capture the black world in a coarse realism that renders over concern with reader comfort a casualty of the colonized. Jenkins, on the other hand, seeks to create American films starring predominately black casts.
So while Jenkins ends his movie so that the viewer, not necessarily the protagonists, can see the light at the end of the tunnel, Baldwin’s novel ends so that the reader sees the darkness and light at one time.
Baldwin paints a vivid picture of what becomes of Fonny, how his deterioration from within a jail cell becomes a certainty when his case’s sole witness refuses to recant her story. The news pushes Fonny’s father over the edge and he is found dead in his vehicle. The ending, though unexpected, depicts clarity in hindsight. Fonny, though hated and targeted by White America was deeply loved by his father. This depiction is a significant one as America frequently portrays black youth as unloved by their own to deflect from the hate experienced in America. The unloved black youth is perhaps most persistently perpetuated by white America’s fixation and perpetuation of the fatherless black child. Baldwin counters this portrayal in the most heart wrenching and soul-stirring depiction of a father’s love and obligation to his son. This paternal love crippled in the violent blow of being unable to or the inability of a father’s to protect his offspring, drives Fonny’s father to his death in the same way Fonny’s love for Tish and their unborn incites their desire to survive. This portrayal is as beautiful as it is necessary, depicting black love as encompassing many forms that yield a similar function.
The intertwining of life and death proves true to a Baldwin form most pronounced in 1955 work Notes of a Native Son. Here, I reference Baldwin’s frequent linking of death with life, suggesting that the simultaneous occurrence of life and death are intrinsically linked with black life. This contention in mind, Baldwin’s writings capture both his life and death—but its film adaptation mark the death of a black male prototype whose race superscedes sexuality. So while Jenkins garners praise for depicting black love on the big screen, his efforts illustrate the abridged and neutered version of Baldwin’s pursuit of justice through literature.
Black Power ❤