DECEMBER 14, 2018
IN 2013, Barry Jenkins was “broke and tired” and creatively blocked. The 33-year-old writer-director hadn’t made a movie since his 2008 debut, Medicine for Melancholy. Hoping to snap the drought, Jenkins flew to Europe, embarking on a multi-city screenwriting marathon that is now calcifying into Hollywood lore.
From Brussels, Jenkins wrote the adapted screenplay for Moonlight, the acclaimed 2016 film that won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay — an honor that Jenkins shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney, author of the unpublished, adapted play — and nabbed nominations for five more, including Best Director. From Berlin, his next stop, Jenkins wrote another adapted screenplay, this one based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk (which Baldwin similarly completed as a more permanent expatriate from his home in southern France, where he lived until his death in 1987). At the time, Jenkins did not own film rights to the novel. More foreboding, Baldwin’s estate had been notoriously guarded about granting such rights in the past. Yet when Jenkins sent a fully completed Beale Street screenplay and a DVD of Medicine for Melancholy in the mail, Baldwin’s estate, executed by Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, did something unprecedented. They said yes.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) is a gorgeous, resounding confirmation that Jenkins is one of the most gifted young directors in Hollywood. It’s also a historic contribution to James Baldwin’s legacy: the first English-language film adaptation of any of his novels. Two years ago, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) prominently highlighted Baldwin’s nonfiction through a compilation of his unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” excerpts from No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), as well as archival footage from Baldwin’s television interviews and debates. Similarly, on social media, especially in relationship to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, people have tended to quote overwhelmingly from Baldwin’s nonfiction, a phenomenon that I have traced elsewhere. But Jenkins’s Beale Street reintroduces audiences to a cornerstone of the Civil Rights icon’s career that has retreated from the spotlight in recent years: his fiction (and what’s more, his late, historically neglected fiction).
Beale Street is voiced by Tish, a 19-year-old pregnant woman and the only female narrator in Baldwin’s oeuvre. The reader follows Tish’s relationship with her 22-year-old fiancé, Fonny, an aspiring sculptor, from childhood to the verge of parenthood in 1970s Harlem. As a young black couple, their love faces the vast machinery of American racism that threatens to extinguish it at every turn. Fonny has been wrongly imprisoned for rape — an injustice partly orchestrated by a corrupt white police officer, who manipulates the victim, a young Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers. Meanwhile Tish and her supportive family rally to set Fonny free before the baby is born. Beale Street illustrates fictionally the consequences of systemic American racism that Baldwin describes and diagnoses in so much of his nonfiction, making it a compelling choice for adaptation. Characters echo Baldwin’s essays: “These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must be able to locate the damned,” thinks Fonny at one point — an inner monologue that sounds strikingly similar to Baldwin’s own eloquent grammar. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Jenkins claimed that it was precisely this blending of Baldwin’s voices, the fictional and the essayistic, “that was such a winning combination for me.”
Jenkins’s adaptation brings Beale Street to the 21st-century screen with languid beauty, lush warmth, and near (but not total) faithfulness. The film preserves much of Baldwin’s original plot and dialogue, including first-person, voice-over narration by KiKi Layne, who plays a demure but steadily emboldened Tish. There are moments when Jenkins’s visual rhetoric and Baldwin’s prose match with soaring harmony. At one point in the novel, Tish describes Fonny from a perspective of totally consumed, magnified cosmic love: “His face was bigger than the world, his eyes deeper than the sun, more vast than the desert, all that had ever happened since time began was in his face.” Fulfilling this reverent gaze, perhaps the trademark shot of the film is a lingering close-up that renders Fonny’s or Tish’s face as big as the screen, locked in a seemingly endless look. (Describing these shots, director of photography James Laxton, one of many Moonlight returners, claimed that “we get as close to the person as we physically possibly can,” sometimes only two to four inches away.) When Tish and Fonny (Stephan James) speak to each other from behind glass at the jail, these dreamy, alternating close-ups melt the distance between them and seem to dispel the barrier that the state has constructed to keep them apart.
The persistent and overpowering visual wonder of Jenkins’s Beale Street is part of what makes the film such a fundamentally different work than the novel, despite so much of its literal overlap. Though still tragic, the film is softer, warmer, more joyous, and, in many ways, less troubling than Baldwin’s original text. There are moments of grotesque horror, biblical terror, and everyday bleakness in Baldwin’s novel that the film’s congenial style cannot access and doesn’t try to: visions of circling vultures, fiery infernos, and jostling slave ships; nightmares of trucks careening from cliffs; reports of rats, roaches, and immense garbage dumps. The film forgoes many of these ominous images as well as much of the novel’s Christian, apocalyptic symbolism. (Shaming their out-of-wedlock conception, Fonny’s villainous “Holy Roller” mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, makes a memorable but only brief appearance.) Jenkins’s Beale Street instead anchors itself closer to historical realism, periodically breaking into black-and-white photomontages that blend archival post–Civil Rights photos with similarly stylized photos of the fictional characters.
Even when the film delves into its darkest moments — such as Tish’s (revised and tempered) nightmare (in which Fonny is locked behind a subway gate, not skidding off a cliff) — it is almost always balanced and buoyed by the splendor of its lighting and color scheme. Accents of yellow persist throughout the film, such that they become a familiar, soothing rhythm that visually resists tragedy even when depicting it. From Tish’s butter yellow sweater, to the school bus yellow shower curtains that frame the sudsy bathtub where Fonny and Tish play together as kids, to the canary yellow walls that loom behind Fonny’s head at the jail, this chromatic harmony keeps hope consistently afloat.
This is not to say that Jenkins shies away from the fate of Beale Street’s characters — the many costs of existing in a society that disproportionally incarcerates, impoverishes, and devalues black communities and black life. But the film depicts these costs in a less harsh key, dropping some of the novel’s most jarring, explicit details — gang rape, suicide, prostitution, police brutality (according to the novel, the white police officer responsible for Fonny’s incarceration has previously killed a young black boy) — and leaning instead on the tragic subtleties of select performances to imply or even stand in for them. In a flashback that takes place before Fonny’s arrest, perhaps the film’s most anguished scene, Fonny and an old school friend named Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry from FX’s Atlanta and this year’s Widows) catch up over beers at his apartment. Their long conversation turns from playful banter about Fonny’s romantic life to a serious discussion about racist landlords to the somber revelation that Daniel has been in prison for the last two years for a crime he didn’t commit. Later, in the novel, Daniel speaks about witnessing gang rape and even being raped himself. The film never addresses these abuses explicitly, but Daniel cryptically alludes to things he saw in prison that he will dream about until the day he dies and begins to cry. Henry’s powerful, haunting performance permeates the rest of the film and carries a good deal of its pathos, conjuring the psychic weight of many of the novel’s disturbing details that are never included. Such obscuring places the film’s emphasis less on rehearsals of quotidian racism and violence, and more on its effects. These elisions also keep the film’s emotional barometer from plunging as far into shock, discomfort, or even melodrama as Baldwin’s novel sometimes does. The film is firmly committed to representing black life beyond this spectrum of experience.
There are two more literal departures from Baldwin’s novel that make watching the film a more satisfying, more enjoyable, and yet perhaps less affecting experience than reading the book. The first is the ending. In the novel, Fonny’s trial has been postponed. Their families might, or might not, have enough money to get him out on bail (the reader never discovers). On the final page, news arrives that Fonny’s father has committed suicide while Tish goes into labor. The page breaks. The novel concludes with an uncontextualized image of Fonny sculpting (Has he been set free? Is it a dream?) and the shrieks of their newborn baby, who “cries and cries and cries and cries, cries like it means to wake the dead.” This conclusion is abrupt, ambiguous, and vexing, projecting both an uncertain future and an imminent reckoning. By contrast, Jenkins’s Beale Street zooms from the birth of their baby to a prison visitation room where Fonny, Tish, and their now four-year-old son sit together around a table, sharing snacks. In this version, Fonny has taken a plea deal and is serving an indefinite prison sentence. There’s no mention of a suicide. Their son, scribbling with crayons, draws pictures of his father coming home and leads the family in a prayer. This ending, to be sure, is also deeply tragic. The injustice of the years that Fonny has already spent in prison, separated from his family, as well as the uncertain number of years to come, is profoundly felt and painful. But the film provides more narrative closure here. The embodiment of the baby as a young, bright, curious boy is, in itself, a vision of optimism — much more so than the novel’s disembodied shrieks.
Even more than the ending, though, the most striking revision for me as a viewer was the way Jenkins’s Beale Street smoothed over, compensated for, and cut some of the sexism and intimations of gender violence surrounding Tish’s character. While Jenkins does not retreat from addressing the rape of Victoria Rogers — nor from depicting sexism toward Tish entirely (at different points, she is ogled, groped, and harassed by strangers) — the representation of Tish and Fonny’s relationship undergoes a radical transformation. Watching the film, I was able to be caught up in their love. Reading the novel, I was not. Too often, I was nagged by my concern for Tish. In the novel, when Tish makes dinner for Daniel and Fonny, the two men playfully razz her and make jokes about domestic violence (“She’s so remarkable, I sometimes have to go up side her head,” says Fonny), as well as her appearance and role in the kitchen (“Tish ain’t very good looking, but she can sure get the pots together”). These lines are never spoken in the film. Daniel and Fonny instead thank Tish multiple times for making their meal, gratitude never expressed in the original text.
This revision affects more than single lines of dialogue. Throughout the novel there’s a pervasive sense that Tish, as a black woman, is threatened and reduced by Fonny, other characters close to her, and even by the text itself. I am not the first to say so. Since its publication in 1974, writers and scholars such as June Jordan, Hortense Spillers, Trudier Harris, and Stacia L. Brown have addressed and critiqued Beale Street’s sometimes sexist portrayal of Tish. Because the film elides much of this misogyny and presents Tish’s relationship with Fonny as more equitable and more safe, their love is more appealing and easier to root for. In the film, when Tish and Fonny have sex for the first time, the scene is gentle, sweet, and sensual. The camera lingers on their bodies as they quietly undress. The few words that Tish and Fonny speak to each other are ones of affirmation and reassurance (it’s the night Tish loses her virginity). The vulnerability and on-screen intimacy of James and Layne is irresistible. The same sexual encounter in Baldwin’s novel is more intense, more perilous, even slightly frightening. Narrated through Tish’s stream-of-consciousness, her sense of sexual agency and consent shifts constantly. “He opened my legs, or I opened them,” Tish says at one point. “I wanted to throw him off, I held him tighter.” Death looms at the edges of the act: “If his arms had not held me, I would have fallen straight downward, backward, to my death […] We could hardly breathe: if we did not breathe again soon, I knew we would die.” These visions of death, while increasing the urgency and potentially the eroticism of their sex, also have real stakes for Tish. Only pages earlier, she imagines being murdered by Fonny: “I was his, and he was mine — I suddenly realized that I would be a very unlucky and perhaps a dead girl should I ever attempt to challenge this decree.” As a reader, it’s hard not to be snagged by this line and distracted by its tangle of violence, threat, and love.
Film adaptations have no obligation to remain fully faithful to their source material (though here the departure is especially interesting since Jenkins otherwise adheres so closely). But what do we lose when we erase the misogyny directed toward Tish by those close to her and by the novel itself? It raises the serious question that I have about this seriously beautiful movie. What do we lose when we forget Beale Street’s ugliness, its flaws, its darkness? In the case of Tish’s character, we lose a fuller portrait of a black woman at the intersections of love, toxic masculinity, racism, and mass incarceration. More broadly, we lose the fact that Baldwin, though brilliant, remains ever challenging, imperfect, irreducible.
Melanie Walsh is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. She writes about the recirculation of 20th-century American literature in the 21st century, networked readers, and the digital humanities.