“If Beale Street Could Talk” Still Delivers On Screen

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James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (Vintage) was published in 1974, but its themes are just as fresh, and as tragic, today. And the new movie that’s been made from it, if anything, shows that our issues with race haven’t progressed very far at all.

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Baldwin’s novel is the story of two young Harlem lovers, Tish and Fonny. They’ve been friends since childhood, and have recently decided to marry. Fonny is a sculptor, and has outgrown his West Village basement studio. But as soon as he and Tish find a loft to rent, Fonny is wrongly imprisoned for a rape he did not commit, and Tish discovers she is pregnant.

The pleasure (if such a word can be used to describe a book like this) of reading Baldwin’s words is rekindled by hearing them spoken aloud in the movie. The raw confrontation between the two families the day they learn about the baby, the fatalistic despair of two grandfathers-to-be, the soft pledges of devotion from two lovers: Baldwin’s dialog is just as alive today as when it was written.

Beale Street’s” screenplay is by director Barry Jenkins, whose last film, “Moonlight,” received the Oscar for best picture in 2017, and also earned him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Much of the movie’s majesty lies in its performances. These include newcomer KiKi Layne as Tish, Stephan James (Jesse Owens in “Race” and John Lewis in “Selma”) as Fonny, Regina King as Tish’s mother and all their fellow actors, a crew already nominated for several ensemble cast awards.

This Oscar-bound title has so far collected 61 wins and 118 nominations in multiple categories, including a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for Regina King, and a Golden Globe for Jenkins for best screenplay, to name just two. “If Beale Street Could Talk” marks the first time a James Baldwin novel has been adapted to a feature film. (The 2016 “I Am Not Your Negro” documentary was based on Baldwin’s unfinished memoir of civil rights leaders.)

Jenkins started working on the “Beale Street” script long before his work on “Moonlight,” and he got permission from Baldwin’s family after he’d written his first adaptation, which he sent to the family as part of his request. The family approved, and joined him and the “Beale Street” cast on stage at the Apollo Theater last year for the film’s U.S. premiere, just blocks from where Baldwin grew up.

At the time If Beale Street Could Talk was published, Baldwin was just as famous for his writings about race, sex and class in 20th century America as for his novels. A 2004 reprint of If Beale Street Could Talk shares a volume of Black Expression Rediscoveries with Go Tell It On the Mountain, Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, and The Fire Next Time, two essays on race, and race and religion in America.

An uncredited player in “Beale Street” is the horrific prison experience itself. Brian Tyree Henry’s character, Daniel Carty, an old friend of Fonny who’s just spent two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, says “They make you so fucking scared.”

“Do you want me to die in here? Do you know what’s happening to me in here?” cries Fonny through glass as Tish visits him in prison.

“Despair.” “Dashed Hopes.” “Extremes of Sacrifice.” These are words found in direct quotes about the book, not a great recommendation for a pleasurable escape, but sometimes you’ve got to read or see something you normally wouldn’t. The new perspective pays off.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now available for purchase.

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ABOUT JAMES BALDWIN:

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America’s foremost writers. His essays, such as “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he primarily made his home in the south of France.

Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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