If Beale Street Could Talk (Novel and Film)

“Beale Street is our legacy,” James Baldwin said. It is, but he gave it to us. He gave us two characters, Tish and Fonny, who are not remarkable at all…which is exactly what makes If Beale Street Could Talk unmistakably remarkable. Baldwin painted a portrait of young Black people in love, but what’s more, he painted that portrait in world that by nature sought to crush both the lovers and their love.

If you’re Black, you know that Black love is not revolutionary in itself, because it exists within all of us. But, you likely also know that Black love is extraordinarily revolutionary in the face of the seemingly unending efforts of the world to extinguish that love for ourselves and for one another. That Tish and Fonny do not allow the glow of their love to be extinguished is again unremarkable, though a non-Black reader may find it to be so. Hundreds of years in this country have not extinguished our love, and so every example of Black love we see around us, while unremarkable, is still a testament. Baldwin knew this. He knew that if Beale Street could talk, it would tell us stories of holy-rollers, petty thieves, girl fights, sisterly companionship, police brutality, allies, racism, but most of all, about folks who love. Beale Street lives in us, as Baldwin asserted, because love also lives within us—even when the circumstances of our lives would try to drive it out. “You’re supposed to be somebody‘s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger,” Baldwin writes early in the novel. Beale Street reminds us to be nobody’s nigger.

When I first read If Beale Street Could Talk last month, the scene that most shocked me was the meeting of Tish’s and Fonny’s family regarding Tish’s pregnancy. The wrongful prosecution of Fonny didn’t make me bat an eyelash (as a lawyer), but the vehemence of some of the ideas, language, and actions in that scene forced an audible “Oh my God” to escape my lips more than once. Berry Jenkins’ film adaptation abbreviates the scene but to the same effect and still chooses to portray what I felt was the most jarring aspect of that scene without any further cinematic editorializing or commentary. Where there was once love, there can be hate as well. This scene is a critical aspect of both Baldwin’s novel and Jenkins’ film adaptation, because it reminds us of what internalized hatred can yield. Almost all the things that are weaponized here by one family against another (colorism, Christianity, classism) are regurgitated forms of the weapons employed on Blacks by the majority of this country throughout history. And not coincidentally.

Fonny and Tish serve as the counterpoint of this, and other flashpoints and systems of hate in Baldwin’s tale. But, then again, so do so many others. The workers in the Spanish restaurant that Fonny and Tish frequent, the Jewish landlord who finally offers Fonny and Tish a loft, Tish’s parents and sister, Fonny’s father (towards Fonny), the shopkeeper who backs Tish’s story, the friend, Daniel, who finds a foothold on the path to redemption through the understanding offered by Fonny. If we really examine If Beale Street Could Talk, we see that at every juncture, love subverts the hate that seeks to destroy it. This story and its underlying optimism, coming from a gay Black man of the civil rights era, is a testament of the way love moves and molds us. This film, coming from a man whose last film centered on the evolution of a gay Black man, has both Black love and America dead to rights.

There were two major changes from the novel to the film that I felt were missteps, both involving the ending—but you will only catch them if you’ve read the novel (otherwise the film plays splendidly). The first revolves around the fate of Fonny’s father, Frank, who’s inability to safely steer his son through the world incapacitates him. The second involves Fonny’s fate and his charges. Though there is still a hint of hopefulness and hanging-on in the film ending, it is distinctly different from the novel. I don’t think the change was necessary, and I think it muddles Baldwin’s message slightly by trying to make it more contemporary with the current conversation of mass incarceration, which did not exist at the time the novel was published.

The film audience doesn’t know how long Fonny is in prison, but we know he’s there and it ain’t right. When discussing the decision to leave Fonny’s prison stint length unspecified in the film, the actress playing Tish stated, “I think that leaving that detail out encourages the audience to wrestle with that and that feeling that he never should have spent one day there.” We get that, I think, from the novel a bit more. There is passage from the novel that depicts how Fonny’s love and sexuality mingle with his desperation in prison in a way that sears into the reader’s mind, just as into Fonny’s, how much he doesn’t belong there.

But, the point of If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t just that Fonny is loved and that Fonny doesn’t belong in prison. The point is that none of us do. “These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie,” Baldwin writes at one point in the novel, as Fonny begins to truly understand the nature of the beast that is prison and the system. Daniel didn’t belong there either. America as the Land of the Free will always be a lie as long as our system is designed to herd the Fonnys and Daniels to this fate.

In one of the last conversations of the novel, between Tish and her mother, Tish says about Fonny, “[t]hey beat him up, but they didn’t beat him—if you see what I mean.” If Beale Street Could Talk is about just that . . . they didn’t beat us.


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