In 1968, James Baldwin was commissioned to write a screenplay based on the autobiography of Malcolm X. The effort, which frightened then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover when he found out about it, was shelved for than two decades before being produced, with Spike Lee rewriting the script and Baldwin’s family asking that his name be removed from the credits.
Baldwin’s novels have been adapted for the screen before — the 1998 French film Where the Heart Is ships the basic story of 1974’s If Beale Street Could Talk overseas, and 1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain was made into a TV movie in 1984 — but writer/direcotr Barry Jenkins’ 2018 adaptation of Beale Street finds a book by one of 20th century America’s most prominent black voices finally getting a proper cinematic treatment, with black actors and filmmakers leading the charge.
The result is a modern masterpiece of black cinema. Similar to Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight, his If Beale Street Could Talk captures the nuance of black life, the joys and the pains. And the film doesn’t lack for either.
The title references W.C. Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues” and the street in Memphis that is considered the home of the blues. The film begins with Baldwin’s quote, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
We then find 19-year-old Tish Rivers (newcomer KiKi Layne) in 1970s Harlem, walking in a park with boyfriend Alonzo (Stephan James), called “Fonny” by his family. They grew up together and now realize they are in love, so magnetic on screen that one questions if the actors dated in real life.
Hard cut to Tish and Lonny on a phone the a visitation station at a jail. Tish’s voice over plays atop the scene — “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” She has come to the jail to tell Fonny she’s expecting a child.
The audience soon learns that Fonny is accused of rape. Despite the geographic impossibility of him committing the crime, and the fact that Fonny was with Tish at time, he’s thrown in jail anyway.
The film documents the turmoil of both his and Tish’s families trying to secure his release along with the strain of another mouth to feed. Money is tight, and fighting the case isn’t cheap.
Tish has the love of her parents — including her mother Sharon, played by Regina King, who come Oscar time should be holding a statue. Her performance emphatically shows how far a mother would go to help heal her family. It’s the greatest turn of her career.
As anyone familiar with Jenkins or Baldwin would expect, the story isn’t wrapped up in a convenient package. We endure the suffering, the racism, the bigotry and discrimination and many times to no avail.
Jenkins’ Moonlight centers on forbidden black love, so it’s no surprise that Beale Street’s story would interest him, as it asks hard questions about how you maintain love when the system (figuratively and literally) is against you?
Tish’s mother reminds her, “Love is what brought you here … and if you’ve trusted love this far, don’t panic now. Trust it all the way.”
The film is hauntingly shot, with Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton capturing both the beauty of Harlem and the despair of injustice. With every visit Tish takes to the prison, you see the light leave Fonny in increments until there is an acceptance. That’s the blues.
As much as Beale Street is a love story, it’s also a story about minorities doubly wronged by a broken justice system. It’s a system that imprisons and separates people of color from their families, who must then turn to the exact same system to try to make things right.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder about the migrant children separated from their parents at our border, and how many haven’t been reunited. Sadly, Baldwin’s impressions of this country and its treatment of black and brown people is as applicable as ever.