What does it mean to be born Black in America? In the 20th century, writer and cultural critic James Baldwin examined this question through his words and experiences. Today, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is grappling with the very same subject. While Baldwin and Coates have managed to articulate the beauty and pain of being Black men in this country —Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins has succeeded in depicting the majesty and fullness of Black life on screen. In his latest work —an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins explores trauma, family, love, and survival in 1970s Harlem, a microcosm of Black America, that still powerfully resonates today. After all, the souls of Black folk still whisper to each other across generations; the specifics of our stories may differ, but the experiences are the same. Jenkins opens his film with Baldwin’s quote, “Every Black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the Black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
Shadow And Act attended the Baltimore premiere of If Beale Street Could Talk, where Jenkins sat down to chat with Ta-Nehisi Coates —a Baltimore native, and the man he says inspired him to tell this story.
“I’ve never seen anybody shoot Black people the way Barry shoots Black people,” Coates marveled. “There’s a kind of lushness, a beauty that he bestows on Black people, that we are really not used to seeing.”
If Beale Street Could Talk opens with the camera panning the littered and leaf-lined streets of Harlem. The cracked concrete on the sidewalks is glaring —and yet, as the camera pulls out, the lens focuses on Tish Rivers (portrayed by Kiki Layne), and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (portrayed by Stephan James) best friends-turned-lovers, who are swept up in the enchantment and newness of first love and familiarity.
For Jenkins, giving Black people their due diligence on camera stems from the source material and his personal love for his family. “I think that my conception of these characters is rooted in my conception of the people I grew up with,” he explained. “These characters are my family, in a certain way. To be more intellectual or aesthetic about it, the history of cinema is rooted in whiteness. It was designed to render white faces properly. The history of cinema is 100 years old, and in the last 20 years, we’ve developed these digital tools. Now, you get these digital cameras and pull them out of the box, and reprogram them. I recalibrate them to prioritize melanin, to prioritize dark skin, and brown skin. That’s where you start, everything else was just showing love for the characters.”
Though Baldwin penned Beale Street over 40 years ago—the story still carries a heaviness as if it were written yesterday. Black people have continued to endure systemic and community traumas. “A big theme here is obviously mass incarceration,” Coates reflected. “If Beale Street Could Talk comes out in the early ’70s, and it’s actually just the beginning of this epidemic that we find ourselves in. One of the things [Barry] is able to do in the film, through images, is trace how long this issue has been with us as Black people. Baldwin was not anonymous during the ’60s and ’70s. I think it speaks to the power of his work, that so many of us at his particular moment are struck by him. I think any artist, any writer—that’s what they would hope for. Long after they are gone, that they’re still haunting people. That it feels like what they had to say about the world still had meaning.”
In Beale Street, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape. The horror of his imprisonment traumatizes not just him, but also Tish and the young lovers’ families as a whole. “I really started to understand that a lot of Baldwin’s work centers around trauma,” Jenkins reflected. “We have caught up to Baldwin in a certain way. Trauma is a thing that exists on a continuum. We often think that once we get out of the institution, out of the system, we can just bury the trauma –we can leave it behind. But that the trauma is reverberated throughout the community, throughout the family, and that is always somehow just below the surface.”
Despite what happens to Fonny, Tish and their loved ones, there is an underlying thread of hope in Beale Street, a whisper of a new beginning. Jenkins did not want this to be a story that solely focused on Black pain. “Though our lives in this country have been rooted in some version of suffering and despair and degradation, there’s always been hope,” he explained. “There’s always been love and community. You could title Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and it would be the same film. Because to me, that movie is about the lives untold of Black folks.”
In his film adaptation, Jenkins chose to deviate from Balwin’s ending in Beale Street —it was a choice that Coates, who is adamant about labeling and revealing the very damaging effects of oppression and racism, doesn’t necessarily agree with. “It was a gut punch,” Jenkins said of the film’s original ending which will be on the DVD. “To have gone through everything this family goes through—to go through all these agonies the characters went through, and to leave the audience in that place? I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. We’re going to survive.”
Our stories—like those of Fonny, Tish, or even Chiron have always existed—the difference is that the disenfranchized now have access to mediums like cinema. For centuries, storytellers like Coates and Baldwin have been able to unpack Black experiences and identity on paper. Now —just like Black musicians did with jazz, Black filmmakers can use film to amplify these words, elevating them with images and sound. “Once instruments made their way into Black folks’ hands, somehow we got jazz,” Jenkins explained. “In the last 20 years, the tools of cinema have gotten small and affordable. Now, I, born and raised in the Miami projects to a crack-addicted mother has access to the same tools that Stephen Spielberg has, and I can recalibrate them to speak in my voice.”
If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing everywhere.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide