“Every black person in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” – James Baldwin
“If Beale Street Could Talk”, Barry Jenkins’ latest work, is a finely crafted cinematic masterpiece. Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, undisputedly one of the most canonical and essential voices of the Twentieth Century, this story speaks to the African-American experience in America, and thus inevitably to America’s on-going disease of white supremacist based racism and the mass-incarceration of black bodies. Baldwin has known a sort of revival in recent years, what with Raoul Peck’s documentary-style film “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016) based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House”, which delves into America’s history of racism entwined with his own personal experiences. Yet until now, none of his novels had been adapted to the screen.
Against the backdrop of 1970s Harlem, New York, the film possesses a timeless quality, especially when paired with the Taxi Driver-esque musical score. A collaborative work of art that brings together literature, music and cinema, with scenes that are so well directed that they can only be described as theatrical. This is achieved through characters who deliver such energy and emotion that one is totally immersed into these people’s lives. In adapting the book for the screen, Jenkins produced a perfect balancing act between adding and subtracting elements to and from the original narrative. In doing so, it becomes clear that his aim and role as a filmmaker is to transmit the energy of the novel to the screen. Contributing massively to this transmitted energy is the work of composer Nicholas Britell, whose musical score caresses and pulls you even deeper into the film, reminding us that film is about walking a delicate tightrope between image and sound. When done successfully, as it is here, the effect is a deeply moving, visceral experience.
“Beale Street” is Baldwin’s depiction of the injustice and pain caused by the American system and opposes it with love and joy through the soulmates that are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Falsely accused of rape, Fonny is sent to jail awaiting his trial, during which the pregnant Tish and her family must somehow pull together enough money for his defence, including tracking down the rape victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). During his Q&A at Picturehouse Central in London, Jenkins explained his approach to Rogers’ character, that “in different hands, in the wrong hands, not even mine, I mean not in James Baldwin’s hands, that character is denied her core humanity, her trauma is not dealt with in the same way that Tish of Fonny’s trauma is”. Jenkins was completely aware that nor he or Baldwin were able to understand this trauma, a trauma only women can fully comprehend. Directing, Jenkins was “out of this scene. It was theirs (Tish’s mother, an incredible performance by Regina King, and Emily Rios). I’m not a woman, James Baldwin wasn’t a woman, I don’t know what this trauma feels like”. And the result is overwhelming.
Coming into the story from Tish’s perspective, it is easy to feel that Victoria Rogers is the antagonist to begin with, but quickly you understand that it is the system that is the puppeteer. One of the best scenes of the film is a brutally honest conversation between the two fathers, about how they are going to make sure their children’s lives are not ruined by the very same white system that has made life so difficult for them. Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) is categorical about this. They have never had anything, but they have both managed somehow to raise their children, doing what they know works for them, the only way they are able, to avoid their children’s future to die in chains. The cruel irony of it is that now, these two men must commit crimes (stealing from their work to sell the “hot goods” on the streets) for their son who has committed no crime, and if they are caught, will also end up trapped in the system. “It’s Baldwin – published 45 years ago yet so very relevant to today” concluded Jenkins.
Writing the book from Tish’s female perspective, Baldwin already does something quite spectacular to the theme of masculinity, as he is able to so elegantly narrate her experiences, but also brings this sensitivity and more importantly, vulnerability, to his male characters. Bryan Henry delivers a magnetic performance as Fonny’s childhood friend, Daniel. After a gradual build up of a few beers and cigarettes, he eventually tells Fonny that he has just spent the last two years in prison, for a crime he did not commit. In a ten-minute take, the camera relies on his skill to communicate his deeply rooted, traumatic experience of prison. The trauma of this experience is not lingering, but is very much now a whole new part of him he is yet to deal with, or attempt to.
As we know, stories like Daniel’s have been happening since before this novel was written, and as Jenkins pointed out, Stephan James based his character on Kalief Browder, “who was arrested for allegedly having stolen a backpack, and spent three years in jail, awaiting trial, for a crime he did not commit. Two and a half of those years, he spent in solitary confinement, and shortly after being released, he committed suicide. Now, the system is so stacked that had he accepted a plea, he would have spent maybe eight months in jail, and then would get out with this on his record. But he didn’t want that. Now, everyone has a camera to film with in their pocket, and with that comes responsibility, not to change the world, but hopefully to adjust and change perspectives”.
Written by Eloïse Wright.
If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing in selected cinemas across the UK.