James Baldwin, author of If Beale Street Could Talk

James Baldwin, author of If Beale Street Could Talk

if beale street could talk

In 2017 I co-wrote the screenplay for a movie filmed in Hawaii called The Islands, which starred Mira Sorvino. On set I spoke with her and she told me that all the work now was in TV and Indies - the big studios are only making animation and superhero movies. So it is rare that a director has success with a film like Moonlight which stole the show at that year’s Oscars.

So the follow-up to possibly the greatest upset in Oscar history is a big deal, and director Barry Jenkins chose to follow up Moonlight with an adaptation of novelist James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The film has a slow but deliberate pace, like the era - the book was published in 1974. This is a welcome change from the sense one gets from contemporary action films (which is what Hollywood mainly puts out now) of being punched in the face for two hours straight. Instead, Beale Street builds in suspense slowly, like an old Shaylaman film without the kitch.

Beale Street is the story of a young mother (not bride, which matters to some and not others) and her relationship with childhood friend-turned lover, “Fonny” to the familiar. Fonny is framed in the horrific rape of a Puerto Rican woman and he ends up in a kind of purgatory. But not exactly the kind of purgatory with which Baldwin’s book ends.

The blogger and writer Rhone Fraser critiques the choice to alter the ending (spoiler alert):

Let me begin by saying that Barry Jenkins’s film If Beale Street Could Talk must be seen. It must be supported because it deals with the effect of the mass incarceration industry on the Black family in the United States. The novel is structured in real time, in the year it was published, which was in 1974.

It is narrated by “nineteen year old” Tish Rivers. However, the film distorts two things in the novel. One, the relationship between Frank Hunt and his son Alonzo Hunt, known in the film as Fonny. Two, the fact that although Fonny was incarcerated, he never took the plea offered by the state to supposedly get a shorter sentence. The narrator Tish tells us, in Baldwin’s words about Fonny:

“He swiftly understood that he was between the carrot and the stick but he had to make it clear, finally, that he’d be damned if he’d go for the carrot” (127).

However, in his screenplay, Jenkins writes:  “and so…like many of these poor men, Fonny took the plea” (103).

Those involved in the film, constantly asked about the film’s ambiguous ending in which the length of Fonny’s sentence is not revealed, replied that “it doesn’t matter.” The fact that he is in prison for any length of time for a crime he didn’t commit is sentence enough. With #Black Lives Matter reminding us that, if anything, this problem may be worse than ever, Jenkins’s retelling and emendation of Baldwin’s tale is as relevant as ever, both as art and political commentary.