Spoilers for If Beale Street Could Talk, book and film.
In 1974, James Baldwin published a book-length essay reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement. The essay, No Name in the Street (much of it contributed to Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro) is Baldwin’s first-hand account of his relationships with many Black revolutionaries; Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. They had all died, and Baldwin very nakedly reflects on the circumstances of their deaths - the specific American racism, hatred, and oppression that they were all fighting, and that killed them. And, perhaps most importantly, Baldwin reckons with the cost of the Civil Rights Movement. How tiring and soul-crushing the deaths of so many young, impassioned, thoughtful Black men and women was. And still is; the consequences of those deaths are felt every in every waking moment of America today.
Interspersed throughout the essay – as he seamlessly links the details of his own life with the larger, looming problems of systemic oppression in American society – Baldwin gives an account of the arrest and accusation of a friend and former bodyguard, William (Tony) A. Maynard Jr. Tony - a big, loud man, a Black Muslim, with a “panther-like, streetboy elegance” and an affinity towards white women, who had worked with Baldwin in Civil Rights demonstrations. Tony was accused of a murder in New York and arrested in Germany. At the time of Baldwin’s writing, Tony had been in jail for three years, and Baldwin is honest about his assurance of Tony’s innocence, the inconsistencies of the case itself, his personal guilt for having to fight the case from America while adapting a screenplay of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the frustrations of dealing with an old, respected, white criminal lawyer who moves slowly because he gains nothing from trying to rattle a system he has settled into so comfortably. Tony was eventually released, as abruptly as he had been arrested, in part because he had support that, unfortunately, many young Black and Brown men and women do not have. They are trapped in a “Justice” system that would rather profit from their forced involuntary (slave) labor than provide them with their due process. “I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned…It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Two years after the release of No Name in the Street, Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk was published. It’s a story that gives thoughtful, bittersweet expression to the interiority of Black love, and the various social barriers that hamper and limit that love. The title, like No Name in the Street, references the perspectives that might be lost, if not for the resilience and insistence of Black men and women who ensure that their voices are fully expressed. Baldwin’s novel embraces the love between characters that is repeatedly tested by the institutions that hamper them, and Jenkins’ film follows the novel’s bittersweet account of Black life.
Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) love each other, and Jenkins frames deep close-ups of the lovers’ faces, so we can see that love manifested in their facial expressions, their actions. They are vulnerable, to the world and to each other, and they are also young. But they aren’t afraid of committing, of being open; on the contrary, they’re excited to be with each other, to move in and develop together. When Tish tells Fonny that she’s pregnant with his baby, she calls him by his first name, Alonzo, so that he knows that she’s serious. They laugh, in excitement and affirmation of the love they have for each other, and for their unborn child. Only, Fonny is laughing on the other side of a plexi-glass screen; and at the end of their conversation, he’s led by a guard back to his prison cell.
Fonny has been accused of raping Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a single mother from Puerto Rico. Because the woman has fled New York, their young, white, increasingly invested lawyer needs time gathering the resources to attempt to bring her back, so that Fonny’s case won’t be postponed any longer than it needs to be. The forthcoming baby is like a spark, a rallying call for both Tish’s family and Fonny’s, and one they needed in the midst of the struggle to free Fonny. Tish’s Mother, Sharon (Regina King), Father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and Sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) are all supportive, understanding, and excited, but with a practical eye on what it will take to support Tish and Fonny. As for Fonny’s side of the family, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) uses religion as an excuse to hide her pain, avoid her son, and condemn her future daughter-in-law for pre-marital sex. Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach) is haunted by the stark effort it will take to, maybe, bring his boy home.
So they work. Tish stands all day at a perfume counter, while the Fathers fence stolen clothes. And, when the opportunity arises, Tish’s mom, Sharon, flies out to Puerto Rico, desperately hoping she can convince Victoria Rogers that, even though she was raped, Fonny was not her rapist. This is a family whose vast love and support for each other creates hope for Fonny’s freedom. But that love is strained by the social weight of racial discrimination.
It’s felt in brief moments; at the perfume counter, where Tish’s hand is grabbed, and pressed, perversely, to the nose and lips of a passing white man. It’s felt in personal moments; at Fonny’s apartment, when Fonny’s old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) confides to him about the horrors of a two-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. And it’s felt in desperate moments; in a bar, where Joseph encourages Frank to keep trying, to keep fighting for the sake of their kids. In these scenes as well, Jenkins frames the faces with the same attention to detail as his close-ups of affection; shots that just as carefully capture the sad depths of racial frustration and trauma, revealing the shadows of pain that jut out of the love.
Jenkins’ film is beautiful, colorful, vibrant. There are moments of happiness and comfort, brightly-dressed vignettes of intimacy. But If Beale Street Could Talk is also very sad. That the characters’ love for each other is true is never in doubt; but the pall of their circumstances is always present as well. The movie is so bittersweet because it centers Black love: Fonny and Tish’s young, blossoming love. The focus and care Fonny pours into his wood sculpturing. The empathy, and hospitality, that Fonny and Tish extend to Daniel. Tish’s supportive love from her parents and sister. Tish’s family’s rallying love for Fonny. Joseph’s friendship and encouragement of Frank. And with the centering of Black love – in its vastness, its variety – comes the truth about that love…that this country designedly fights it, at the cost of harming all of us.
The final scene of Jenkins’ film is of Fonny, Tish, and their toddler son during a prison visit, one loving family among many, carefully watched by a sneering trio of white security guards. This differs from Baldwin’s original ending, where news of the suicide of Fonny’s father is immediately followed by the sudden birth of Tish’s and Fonny’s baby. Both endings speak to the emotional weight of the systemic racism that pressures the characters into frustrating, unfair circumstances.
Baldwin’s original ending struck me, hard, with the stark synchronization of the labors of love, and the manifest consequences of social oppression. But the faces, and ending, of Jenkins’ film, reminded me more of conversations with Black family and friends; of life and of death; of lost brothers and lost children. In the memories, they are always dressed in their best, loving, supportive. But sometimes, beneath the smiles, deep in the eyes, underscoring the laughter, is a profound sadness, that speaks to the entirety of the circumstances; the spectrum of emotional reality that can make the memories as hard to bear as they are necessary to live.