James Baldwin’s novel flopped in 1974. But Barry Jenkins’ film reveals the timely masterpiece it was.
It was Columbus Day, Oct. 12, 1973. From his home-in-exile in France, James Baldwin wrote his brother David to announce that he had just completed his first novel in five years. If Beale Street Could Talk may have been a story about the redemptive power of love, but it was written in the absolute conviction that “blood” was “on the wind” and that the powers that be were not long for this world. Nestled in the manuscript, Baldwin’s fifth novel, were rebukes such as this one, perfectly suited for the holiday: “Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die.” Acknowledging he sounded like the “witness as prophet,” Baldwin called Beale Street “the strangest novel” he had “ever written.”
Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of Beale Street, for which Jenkins was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, feels like a revelation. That’s because it manages to convey the strangeness at the heart of the book: a romance that turns on social outrage, a family drama that’s also a searing protest against the carceral state. This strangeness nearly consigned Beale Street to oblivion when it was published by the Dial Press in 1974. Weighed down by reviews deeming it the product of a bygone era, the novel has, until now, attracted interest only among the author’s most devoted readers. Yet by working through this long-term neglect, director and screenwriter Jenkins has uncovered in Beale Street a story that appears fresher than ever.
The novel concerns a young couple in Harlem in the early 1970s: Tish, 19 years old and pregnant, and Fonny, 22 years old and incarcerated. Flashbacks recount how Tish and Fonny met and fell in love, and how they arrived at their predicament. Fonny is awaiting trial for a crime falsely pinned on him by Officer Bell, a white cop bent on exercising his authority over young black men. Once Bell ensnares Fonny in the system, the bureaucracy of incarceration is shown to be invested in suppressing anything that could disprove an innocent man’s guilt.
Yet it’s precisely when Tish has to face these odds that her love for Fonny grows deep. Steadfast in her devotion, Tish is at the center of a concerted family effort to beat the system and get him free. By novel’s end, the family’s surname, Rivers, indicates the spiritual rebirth everyone stands to gain by weathering present injustices.
Baldwin’s intention was to hold these two storylines—of a couple falling in love and of a family facing adversity—together, to show that they were beautifully, terribly intertwined. Such was the condition of being black in America. But the message fell on deaf ears when Beale Streetcame out.
While reviews of the novel were mixed, Beale Street’s detractors spoke the loudest. In the New York Times, Anatole Broyard called Baldwin more “dated” than his long-dead adversary Richard Wright, accusing the author of rehashing civil rights–era jeremiads against America. Christopher Bigsby agreed in the Guardian, charging him with “recreating the mood and deploying the images of a former decade.” In the Washington Post, Larry McMurtry linked this sense of datedness to a complaint shared by nearly every other critic: Tish’s first-person narration evinced “artistic bad judgment.” She was “not really credible,” as the Boston Globe’s Carl Senna put it, because she came across as “too sophisticated,” less a well-rounded character than a mouthpiece for Baldwin. The expectant mother’s voice struck reviewers as a gimmick to repackage a well-worn tale.
If Beale Street Could Talk was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and appeared on the best-seller list for several weeks. But this initial burst of interest couldn’t stave off a deeper problem: Baldwin’s once-reliable liberal readership, according to Darryl Pinckney, editor of a collection of Baldwin’s late fiction, “had had enough of hearing about problems they no longer had the will to solve.” When it came to writing by black authors, white readers’ tastes in the 1970s had swerved away from righteous protest toward, as Pinckney puts it, “fantasies of resolution, of roots found, the past appeased.” The undertone of the novel’s critical reception was, quite simply: Get over it.
In a clear sign of those changes, Dial’s parent company, Dell, passed on the chance to release the paperback edition of Beale Street. Instead, New American Library, a reprint house with whom Baldwin hadn’t published in more than a decade, brought out the mass-market edition in early 1975. Gauzily rebranded as a “masterpiece about the love between a man and a woman,” the book now appeared as a straightforward romance, complete with a cover illustration of a nondescript couple holding each other at sunset. In short, the literary establishment didn’t know what to do with If Beale Street Could Talk because it didn’t know what to do with a white readership steadily turning its back on civil rights. Baldwin had intuited this when he called the novel his strangest. Carrying the banner for social justice into the 1970s, he meant Beale Street to be a forceful reminder that all had not been overcome just yet.
Nearly 45 years later, Jenkins has adapted Beale Street in the spirit of its author’s vision. Most notably, he emphasizes, rather than diminishes, Tish’s point of view. In the film, Tish (KiKi Layne) narrates her romance with Fonny (Stephan James) as if situated in a future point of time. The reflective quality in her voice points to an understanding to come, a bridge between her innocence and her experience. That tone is evident in the novel as well:
"We crossed crowded Sixth Avenue, all kinds of people out hunting for Saturday night. But nobody looked at us, because we were together and we were both black. Later, when I had to walk these streets alone, it was different, the people were different, and I was certainly no longer a child."
Baldwin’s Tish is supposed to be more sophisticated than a white critic, for example, might expect: Her fight for Fonny’s freedom is spurred by her memory of where and how they fell in love. Decades later, Jenkins’ film takes the young heroine at her word against a tradition of reading her suspiciously.
The novel felt like a direct address to black readers who could see the world through Tish’s eyes and recognize her and Fonny’s fate as their own.
Restoring Tish’s voice also shows how the novel’s social consciousness is issued from the future, not the past. Jenkins’ aestheticized style, with its dramatic shifts in tone, echoes Baldwin’s shifts in temporal register. A scene of the lovers wooing conjures the magic of rain-drenched streets in classic Hollywood cinema; a later one of Fonny’s confrontation with Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) evokes the grit of movies like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. But in the film’s most powerful scene, Tish watches Fonny take out his anger at Bell by throwing a bag of tomatoes against a wall. The resulting tableau resonates so powerfully because Fonny’s justified rage, and the risk of having it turn on him, feels like it could have happened yesterday.
Has Jenkins succeeded in one medium where Baldwin failed in another? The film’s fidelity to its source material points to an appreciation for what was there all along. “Time,” Baldwin’s Tish muses, “the word tolled like the bells of a church. Fonny was doing: time. In six months’ time, our baby would be here. Somewhere, in time, Fonny and I had met; somewhere, in time, we had loved; somewhere, no longer in time, but, now, totally, at time’s mercy, we loved.” Being in time and being at time’s mercy: This duality is how Baldwin conceives love and struggle, progress and setback, together, as two sides of the same coin.
It’s a message Baldwin’s black readers picked up from the beginning. In a rare rave review, Revish Windham wrote in the New York Amsterdam News that, by reading the novel, “one might find he has lived there too or maybe living there now without having realized the name, Beale Street, is changed.” Black feminist critic Trudier Harris judged it to be Baldwin’s strongest work, a story almost revolutionary in its simplicity: “They are just folks who love each other and who are committed to the welfare of those whom they love.” Beale Street was an idea, a blues spirit that traversed time and space, from Memphis, Tennessee, (where it actually runs) to New York. The novel felt like a direct address to black readers who could see the world through Tish’s eyes and recognize her and Fonny’s fate as their own.
From this angle, the only strange thing about Baldwin’s novel was his disregard for the sensibilities of a readership he once addressed so regularly. If Beale Street Could Talk signaled a break with the white liberals who had turned him into a star. And it’s exactly this studied indifference that makes Jenkins’ adaptation feel fresh today: Though its style is undoubtedly hybrid, the film refuses to appeal to the white gaze. It’s a story of black love, and of black struggle, that doesn’t wait for viewers who need catching up.