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Beale Street: story of love and injustice is a class act

Director Barry Jenkins takes James Baldwin’s 1974 novel and converts it to the big screen with the writer’s aims intact

08 February, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Certificate 12a

HOW do you follow up a hit film about the trials and tribulations facing a gay black man that won the Best Picture Oscar last year?

The answer for Barry Jenkins is to take work from the master, James Baldwin – a man whose prose, insight and commentary made him the one of the strongest voices on race and class in America in the 20th century.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the 1974 novel by Baldwin, and treads a path he had already described in Go Tell It On A Mountain and The Fire Next Time.

The stage is Harlem and a family trying to fight against a system that is unbending and undefeated. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are in love and expecting their first child, but lurking is the obstacle course black men must navigate. It is a world that stacks the odds, lays traps and recognises no natural justice.

When he is falsely accused of a crime, it falls on Tish and her family to do what they can to make sure the system doesn’t swallow him whole – a tall order considering the institutional racism he is facing.

This is a love story layered with social commentary and Baldwin includes an understanding of class and cross-cultural solidarity, told through asides featuring a Jewish landlord and an Italian storekeeper. It feels like Baldwin and Jenkins are making a clear statement regarding class inequality as well as that of racial injustice. A crime committed against a Puerto Rican woman, at the centre of the plot, adds to this.

We are given a back story to illustrate the depth of their relationship, starting with a terrific opening scene when families are gather to hear news that will change their lives.

In 2016, the excellent documentary on Baldwin’s essay, I Am Not Your Negro, was released – it gave a sharp insight into his philosophy, and used archive footage put his work into a context.

It also showed you can take Baldwin’s writing and adapt it for screen without losing its power. Jenkins recognises Baldwin’s work had two prongs to it: not only did he contemplate life for black Americans, he did it so beautifully.

Then there is the sad fact that Baldwin’s work is just as relevant today as it was when he first took up his pen.

In The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, he states: “In order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to re-examine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.”

Such a statement could today refer to Trump, the rabid anti-European right in the UK and the rise of nationalistic scoundrels elsewhere, democratic deficits driven by dirty tricks, the power of big business and fanned by an unaccountable media hewn from the same rock as those they are meant to be critiquing: it’s another reason that Baldwin’s work, when adapted for screen, is not just an interesting historical piece but scarily contemporary.

Jenkins’ challenge is to take Baldwin’s novel and convert this to screen with his aims intact. This he achieves.


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