Author James Baldwin, 1970
James Baldwin, 1985
James Baldwin with other civil rights activists, 1963
Director Barry Jenkins
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK B+
USA (119 mi) 2018 d: Barry Jenkins
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.
―James Baldwin, epigraph from If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974
Even earlier than the success of 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins had been busy at work for four or five years adapting a James Baldwin novel from 1974, beginning in December 2013 spending 10 days in Brussels writing the screenplay for Moonlight, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, then taking a train to Berlin where he wrote an adaptation of the Baldwin novel, not having rights to either work at the time, but eventually securing permission for both, playing a DVD of his earlier film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) for Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister and executor of the James Baldwin estate along with her daughter Aisha Karefa-Smart, a film featuring two characters wandering the city of San Francisco and talking through their lives after a one-night stand, a quirky, funny, and independent black love story, both approving the idea they had found the right filmmaker. Following the novel, which is an ode to love that also comes across like a doomed fairy tale, or a blues lament, the story is set in Harlem in the early 1970’s following a 19-year old black woman Tish, the saintly and overtly innocent KiKi Layne, who seeks to clear the name of her 22-year old boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), a sculpture artist who is wrongly convicted of rape and sent to rot in prison, unable to prove his innocence before the birth of their child. Rather than feel downbeat and defeated, they cling to hope, where there is a palpable uplifting spirit guiding this family even as they struggle against all odds. In essence it’s an innocent portrait of black love, surrounded by darkly conspiring forces that are anything but innocent, where the struggle to maintain one’s composure and dignity is tested throughout, like the unending trials and tribulations of Job, with no easy resolution at the end. The American criminal justice system is filled with cases where blacks are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, used like pawns as political fodder for law and order candidates who vow to clean up the streets, which means arresting more black kids and filling up the jails, as if the streets are somehow safer by overcrowding the prison cells with black youth whose childhood and young lives are literally stolen from them, habitually blamed for crimes they did not commit, which means the real criminals are still out there still wreaking havoc. While this is the backdrop of the film, showing how easily young black lives are destroyed by lengthy periods of incarceration, where their real crime is poverty, as their families don’t have the money to hire lawyers or raise bail to get them out, so they’re imprisoned even while awaiting trial, serving a lengthy sentence where there is no presumption of innocence. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “70 percent of people in local jails are not convicted of any crime,” instead their primary infraction is that they are poor and powerless. Often what happens is these young men, who have done no wrong, eventually plead to lesser crimes than what they’re originally charged with simply to get out of jail, as otherwise they’re stuck in there seemingly forever, awaiting a justice that never comes. First and foremost this is a touching love story, an idyllic Romeo and Juliet caught in the wrong time and place, where the point of the film is to humanize those affected, including their families and friends, creating empathy for others like them, showing how pervasive and deeply rooted this problem is in America, where there is no justice for racially motivated police crimes that specifically target black youth, so routinely connecting them to random crimes that otherwise would be difficult to solve, so they are easy pickings, made to serve prison sentences for crimes many of them never committed, rigging the system, where falsifying evidence, testimony, and fabricating crimes is a corrupt police practice that hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years.
Not cut from the same cloth as his other films, as this is less accessible and more artistically abstract, and while drop dead beautiful, shot by his regular cinematographer James Laxton, this aesthetic may actually overemphasize mood and art design over text and social realism, where the authoritative voice of James Baldwin is there, but the continual use of slow-motion, lengthy inner narration, intoxicating visuals, enhanced musical moods, and often over-the-top melodrama creates a different universe overshadowing the story, as it’s intentionally painting an impressionistic montage throughout, where the artistic techniques are extreme and overly obvious, with nods to the lush visualization of Wong Kar-wai, where the jazzy musical score from Nicholas Britell is a nice contrast, sounding like Terence Blanchard in Spike Lee films, with a counterpoint using R & B songs from the era like Al Green, Nina Simone, and just a touch of John Coltrane, while also using a series of giant Sirkian close-ups that heighten the overall sense of artificiality, which at least some of the time has the effect of undermining the film. In too many instances the tone is simply off, not really in keeping with the worldly sense Baldwin provides, as Jenkins gets carried away with providing additional texture that is at the heart of Baldwin’s effusively descriptive prose, but novels create time and space, allowing readers to contemplate what they’re reading, while film compresses the whole into smaller individualized pieces, which is just too showy here, choppily edited, altering the fluidity of the page, feeling more manipulative than organic, and that comes from the choices Jenkins is making in how to best express this material. It’s unfortunate because this portrait of criminal injustice is among the strongest and most socially conscious subjects in any Jenkins film, or any other film out there at the moment, where it couldn’t be more relevant, but the seething anger that is Baldwin’s voice is drowned out by artificial techniques that are not just unnecessary, but get in the way, altering and minimizing the dramatic mood established by the author, becoming something else altogether, saturated in color and technique, overstylized, using the power of cinema to overwhelm, and while it’s beautiful to look at, it lacks the sense of urgency from the original text, which is at the heart of all of Baldwin’s works, which is why we all read him growing up, as few others could transport us to such an intensely compelling universe. Baldwin himself was under siege when he wrote this novel, criticized by the Black Panthers, specifically Eldridge Cleaver in Soul On Ice, for being too effeminate, damning him for being gay, preferring the fiercely emboldened writings of Richard Wright, pitting the two against each other, undercutting Baldwin’s significance within his own black community, despite an irrefutable record and lifelong career of standing on the front lines protesting against racial abuse. Baldwin lived most of his life after the age of 24 in Paris, disillusioned by the racism and homophobia so rampant in America, making him one of America’s most important exile writers, and one of its most thoughtful critics, as evidenced by Raoul Peck’s 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro. In a review of the book from The New York Times in 1974 ("If Beale Street Could Talk"), author Joyce Carol Oates wrote:
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is Baldwin’s 13th book and it might have been written, if not revised for publication, in the 1950’s. Its suffering, bewildered people, trapped in what is referred to as the “garbage dump” of New York City―blacks constantly at the mercy of whites―have not even the psychological benefit of the Black Power and other radical movements to sustain them. Though their story should seem dated, it does not. And the peculiar fact of their being so politically helpless seems to have strengthened, in Baldwin’s imagination at least, the deep, powerful bonds of emotion between them. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a quite moving and very traditional celebration of love. It affirms not only love between a man and a woman, but love of a type that is dealt with only rarely in contemporary fiction―that between members of a family, which may involve extremes of sacrifice…
If Beale Street Could Talk” is a moving, painful story. It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless―an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalyptic excesses.
It’s what Oates says in the end that matters most in this film adaptation, “not the slightest need of aesthetic tricks,” which Jenkins does not take to heart, so while this might be his most gorgeously sublime work, it is also his most flawed. Told out of time in an ever increasing series of flashbacks, one must affirm that some of the essential scenes are positively riveting, including how the family is initially informed about Tish’s pregnancy, announcing it first to her own family, and then to Fonny’s (who’s already in jail), which erupts into a free-for all of surreal comic hilarity, turning into a knockdown Saturday night brawl, as the two families have hugely differing views on the matter. Regina King is Tish’s mom, warmhearted and loving throughout, willing to do anything for her daughter, even go that extra mile, which includes a trip to Puerto Rico in search of the women claiming Fonny raped her, picking him out of a line-up, which is another beautifully rendered moment, as both women are victimized by the same circumstances, but in different ways, as blacks and browns are pitted against each other by a white racist system that orchestrates the ruse. Both women demonstrate an innate sense of utter futility, demoralized by the stench of debasement that might stain and define them forever. Similarly, the scene between the two fathers is equally intense, Tish’s father (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s (Michael Beach), each openly acknowledging no chance in hell of getting the money they need to extricate their children out of a hopeless situation, relying upon petty thievery just to stay even, where it’s a blistering portrait of black masculinity. Mirroring that scene is one between Fonny and an old childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), recently released from prison, where there’s not an ounce of artificiality here, describing the hell he went through and the abuses he suffered as an incarcerated black man after being falsely accused of stealing a car (though he can’t even drive), set to the background music of Miles Davis Blue in Green, Blue in Green by. Miles Davis - YouTube (5:37), an achingly sad expression of loneliness, perfectly capturing a distorted criminal justice system that sends falsely accused black men to jail as a matter of routine, where “they can do with you whatever they want. What. Ever. They want,” with no recourse except to serve your time, as the white man has you “by the balls,” with Daniel coming to the conclusion that the white man may as well be the devil for what they put black people through every day, intentionally destroying young black lives. There are accompanying black and white historic still shots of men on chain gangs working in the fields, with white overseers armed with rifles on horseback, reminding audiences just how long this has been going on. But there are also hopeful scenes, even in the dim gloom of night, including an impressive shot of Fonny working on a sculpture, cigarette in hand, smoke slowly rising, all saturated in a golden hue, giving it the texture of an illusory dream, the kind of thought that might get him through the day while spending solitary hours in confinement. When he and Tish were looking for a place to live, perhaps unsurprisingly no one would rent to them, like a Joseph and Mary couple in Harlem, growing ever more desperate, eventually taken to a vacant industrial warehouse, where they have to imagine what might exist in a lifeless place like this, yet it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film, shown by a decent young Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) wearing a yarmulke. When Fonny turns to inquire why he’d rent to them when nobody else in the neighborhood would, he simply answers, “I am a mother’s son,” preferring to rent his buildings to couples that are actually in love. It’s the most hopeful counterpart to the deluge of anguish and pain that defines this picture, beautifully rendered as a whole, like an exquisite poem reaching out from the darkness, calling from the heart.