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Love Becomes a Tragedy In ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Since its founding, Hollywood has adapted to the screen hundreds if not thousands of literary works by white authors, but – with the exception of some anomalies such as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in 1985 – has largely ignored the work of their Black peers.

In the last decade, however, the commercial and critical success of Black movies has opened Hollywood’s mind and wallet to bringing the work of Black literary icons to the screen. One of them was James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, which was translated to the screen in 2018 by Berry Jenkins.

“Baldwin’s legacy is very important and very rich; I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life,” Jenkins says. “It didn’t occur to me at the time that by making this film I will be filling this void of these epic Black love stories, but arriving at the other side, I do think it’s addressing what I feel is a lack,” Jenkins says.

Baldwin (1927-1987) is considered one of the most influential American writers in the United States. He lived through the racial segregation era and was active in the Civil Rights Movement, so naturally, his books deal with the African American experience – the pressures, the struggles and the hardships that Black men, women, and gays had to face during those turbulent times.

If Beale Street Could Talk is Baldwin’s only novel that explores love in Black society. It tells the heartbreaking story of a 19-year-old girl named Tish, and a 22-year-old sculptor named Fonny, whose lives are upended when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and locked in jail by a racist cop.

In 2013, Jenkins wrote a screenplay version of the story, hoping that it would make it to the screen one day, but its epic scale rendered it impossible to pull off at the time. So, the young director, who at the time had only one feature film in his resumé, opted to make a smaller Black gay romantic movie, Moonlight, in which he explored the social and psychological challenges faced by an African American gay man, from childhood to adulthood, as he struggles to bond with his lover in a racist and homophobic society.

“Both these films are companion pieces,” says Jenkins. “They do share a certain DNA. They are both love stories and they’re both about families, and I also like to think of nature versus nurture, because the behavior of these characters is influenced by the families that raised them.”

These stories don’t simply depict events, but dive into the existential aspects of African Americans, their private lives, their familial and romantic relationships from their own perspective, drawing empathy and a sense of bonding from the audience instead of the pity and despair that are often provoked by Hollywood mainstream movies.

Moonlight was released in 2015 and made history the following year, when it won both the Golden Globe and Oscar Award for Best Picture, becoming the first film with an all-Black cast to do so. Jenkins also won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, paving the path to making If Beale Street Could Talk.

“These kinds of love stories are a celebration of love,” Jenkins says. “But there is something at stake, which makes the love even more delicate and more precious because of the ordeal these characters are going through, that their love is being threatened through no cause of their own.”

Indeed, Fonny and Tish look like angels, who have just descended from a celestial Heaven to a terrestrial Hell. Jenkins showers them with soft, warm light, accentuating their purity and innocence. They rarely talk, and when they do, they whisper. The tenderness and joy in their eyes as they gaze at each other engenders a sense of serenity and peace that words can’t express – the same sense that every human being, regardless of race or gender, feels when falling in love. 

So, when Fonny is arrested and locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, we share in his and Tish’s anguish, and root for their families as they try to confront a formidable justice system that has little regard for the lives of the poor and powerless, who often can’t afford the extortionate legal fees necessary to defend themselves.

Desperation drives Tish’s and Fonny’s fathers to steal from their jobs in order to raise funds for bail and legal fees. Meanwhile, Tish’s mother flies to Puerto Rico to seek out the truth from the rape victim, Victoria, who is also a woman of color. Victoria admits that the police forced her to implicate Fonny, but she won’t testify out of fear.

“Mr. Baldwin deliberately made the rape victim a woman of color because he wanted to show that the system is using the same people against each other in order to rob them of the American dream. The ultimate tragedy is that nobody is concerned with the person who committed the crime. The crime was used to imprison a Black man,” explains Jenkins.

Unjust imprisonments of African Americans have been prevalent since the abolishing of slavery in 1863. Ava DuVernay described it in her documentary 13, as a continuation of slavery. It was made possible by

a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which stipulated that freedom is not extended to criminals. The Southerners exploited that loophole right after the signing of the Amendment into law, implicating freed Black folks in fictitious crimes, and sending them to jail, where they turned them back into free labor.

When the prisoners were freed, they couldn’t assimilate in American society, because at the time convicted felons in the US couldn’t get a job, obtain a bank loan or even vote. 

A similar practice was used by the Nixon administration, following the confirmation of the Civil Rights Act in the preceding Johnson administration. Nixon declared a War On Drugs, which was in fact a subterfuge for the purpose of criminalizing Black movements. A decade later, President Reagan expanded the War On Drugs, resulting in mass incarcerations of African Americans, while notwithstanding, the CIA turned a blind eye to the shipping of drugs from South America to the US, and sometimes even got involved in the process. 

The incarceration of so many African American men and women enriched the Prison Industrial Complex and benefited large corporations, who used inmates as cheap or free labor. Meanwhile, it ripped families apart, left generations of children motherless and fatherless and drove them into crime, wrecked neighborhoods, and sank them into abject poverty. To this day, over 40% of the US prison inmates are African Americans although they constitute only around 12% of the US population. 

“Describing the mythology of Black criminality as the continuation of slavery is a bit extreme,” Jenkins warns. “But this book was published in 1974, and yet everything in it is so relevant to what’s happening today. You could very easily fall into the same situation that this character does. This will continue as long as the justice system or the prison system is a for-profit business. When it is not about getting at the truth, you create scenarios where the system can be manipulated to punish certain groups of people.” 

But it seems that this system is so powerful and so incorrigible that even a Black president, Barack Obama, couldn’t reform it. During his eight-year term, the prison population in the US continued to rise and reached record numbers.

“This is the idea of this movie,” Jenkins says. “These problems have persisted; they are pervasive, and that progress and change should be a direction, not a destination, because if it’s a destination you think, “Oh we’ve arrived, the problem is solved.” No, no, this problem is going to always be here; we have to always be addressing it.”

Like Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk was praised by the critics for its solid script, lush visuals, and fine performances. It received three nominations at the 76th Golden Globes Awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Screenplay for Jenkins, and Best Supporting Actress for Regina King, who won the award for playing the mother and followed it with an Oscar win two months later.