If Beale Street Could Talkbeale

  • Author:  James Baldwin
  • Published:  1974
  • Publisher:  The Dial Press
  • Pages:  197
  • First Line:  “I look at myself in the mirror.
  • Last Lines:  “Fanny is working on the wood, on the stone, whistling, smiling.  And, from far away, but coming nearer, the baby cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries, cries like it means to wake the dead.”
  • Film Version:  2018  (****)
  • First Read:  sometime in the early 2010s

The Book:

When James Baldwin wrote this novel, his only love story, he was almost 50 and some two decades past the two books that really put him on the literary map for both fiction (Go Tell It On the Mountain) and non-fiction (Notes of a Native Son).  But Baldwin had lost none of his magic and this isn’t just a love story but a way at looking at the way that young black men must deal with their place in society.  Set in the present when he wrote it, we’re not only past the actual Civil Rights Era but it’s set in New York City, outside the supposed hotbed of racism of the South and in the supposedly enlightened North.

It’s a reminder, not just of the power of love, but also the power of family when trying to keep yourself going when the entirety of society seems to be working against you.  It’s the story of Tish and Fonny and what happens when Fonny is accused of rape because of a police officer who wants to get back at him and how Fonny isn’t able to do anything about it.

Baldwin tells the story out of sequence, beginning when Fonny is already in jail   It’s told by Tish and we feel her pain within the first couple of pages: “I always remember now, because he’s in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I’m afraid I’ll never see him again.  So I pick up the phone as soon as I get there and I just hold it and I keep looking up at him.”  But it’s also got the notion of hope somehow running through it and a reminder that hope has the power to set you free.

if_beale_street_could_talkThe Film:

Forget about whether or not Beale Street could talk for a second and wonder if the Academy Award for Best Picture could talk.  Would the award sitting at home be saying “What the fuck am I doing on the shelf of one of the producers of fucking Green Book when the idiots in the Academy didn’t even nominate If Beale Street Could Talk?”  I already made a long explanation of why Green Book won and why it shouldn’t have won and how it’s not even the movie that it tries to claim that it is.  All of that would be bad enough but then there is this film, a film that deals with the same kind of things, doesn’t couch it in the bullshit way that Green Book does and finds a way to be uplifting even in the horror of its ending.

This film takes place in 1974 which is the same year that I was born and that the book was published.  But it could have taken place today.  A young black couple, Tish and Fonny, aren’t married but they’re deeply in love.  They want to make a life together and do it with their own money, earned with their own hard work.  It’s hard enough to find a place that will rent to them because they aren’t married and they are black and while there are laws that govern what landlords can do nobody believes for a second that they don’t do it anyway. This is a country built on systemic racism and all of that will come to a head in their lives.  First, they will try to find a place to live.  Then they will try to make a living.  Then a racist cop, a phrase that continues to seem redundant, takes revenge on Fonny for being shown up (in his racism) and manages to get him put behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.  For those of you who would want to argue with me about systemic racism and racism in the police force, I present my own fairly liberal city and the riot that broke out here in 2020 with the burning of several buildings downtown in response to a racist cop blatantly arresting a young black man for doing nothing.  What makes it more painfully disgusting to me is not just that the arrest happened literally in front of my building, but that people speed through the little bus area where he was arrested and a cop from that same police force claimed that the police can’t ticket people, even for driving past a school bus with its sign up because the street is San Diego Metro property.  So you can’t cite people for breaking the law but you can arrest young black men for hanging out waiting for a friend?  Don’t bother wondering why I have such an inherent distrust of cops.

But at heart, this isn’t just a story about systemic racism and the way it drives down a young couple.  It’s a story of how the couple came to be in the first place, how they are fighting for their place in the world and how, somehow against everything that is coming their way, they are still making their lives work.  Fonny’s in jail and he’s not going anywhere.  His mother is a religious lunatic who makes life worse for her husband, for her son and especially for her son’s girlfriend.  And most of all, there’s Tish, now pregnant and trying to figure out how she can handle this with Fonny behind bars.  And yet, somehow this really is a love story, about how love really can conquer all if you really believe in it and are willing to work for it.

While this is a great ensemble film, the main driving acting force is Regina King who, after years of solid work without getting much recognition, jumped from this to her magnificent performance in Watchmen to her directing debut in One Night in Miami and the awards attention that came with it.  King plays Tish’s mother, a woman who is also driven by love, this love for her daughter, her unborn grandchild and the father of that child.  She will leave her home and go to another country in order to try and get at the truth and hopefully get some justice (sadly, she won’t be able to get either) but she’s also a reminder to this young couple of the power of love.

Part of the brilliance of the film (and the novel before it – if you have never read James Baldwin you really need to rectify that especially since his Go Tell It On the Mountain was in my Top 100) is that the story isn’t told straight to us.  We start with Fonny already in jail and only slowly do we get the background of how he ended up there at the same time that things are moving forward in the hopes of getting him out (which won’t succeed).  We move back and forth and get this love story and that’s what gives hope to an ending that could easily be full of bleak despair but instead offers a glimpse of hope and positivity for what this one family can do because of their love.

The Adaptation:

For the most part, the film actually follows fairly closely to what the original novel does, including in the way that it starts with Fonny already in jail and then backs up and lets us understand how he got there at the same time as we move forward and Tish has to deal with her family (and Fonny’s family) and the hope that maybe they can get him out of jail.  The real big difference between the book and the film is that the book has an ending that feels awfully bleak (see the final lines listed at the top).  The film, instead, gives us that final beautiful scene, set inside the prison and yet still hopeful as Fonny and Tish sit down with their son and say a nice grace before eating a meal together in the prison visiting room.  It’s a message of hope that even the darkest things can not break people who are strong and that love really can conquer.  It might not get you past that prison wall but it can help you survive inside it.