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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (1974)
If Beale Street Could Talk directed by Barry Jenkins (2018)
If Beale Street Could Talk is a novel, written by the great African American writer James Baldwin. Even though it is fiction, it is very personal to Baldwin and his experience being a black man in America. He spent a lot of his life living abroad, but is quoted as saying, “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” A snippet from his biography on American Masters says, “Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.”
Beale Street is told from the perspective of Tish, a 19 year old African American living in New York. We learn the story of her and her fiancé, Fonny, who was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. After he has been in prison for a couple months, she finds out she is pregnant with his child.
This could be considered a romance, but it is largely about being black in America. Tish and her family work tirelessly to get Fonny out of jail, but due to the deep-rooted racism in the justice system, this is not an easy task. Dealing with the stress of an innocent man she loves being behind bars is juxtaposed with her feeling the life growing in her belly.
Thoughts on Book
This is a very poetic book, and there is a beautiful passage where Tish is talking to her sister about Fonny’s trial, which reads,
‘We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly—and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart—get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime—forever—it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.’
I listened to the audiobook of this, and when I heard an especially beautiful passage, I made a mental note to go to the book and find and highlight it. I was able to go back and find a few, but there are a couple others I couldn’t find. From the above passage, and another I will share later, you can see what an incredible writer Baldwin was.
The audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin and I highly recommend listening to her narration. It may be my favorite audiobook narration I have listened to so far! Her voice acting is more powerful and expressive than some of the acting in the actual movie! But we’ll get to that later.
I actually have now read/listened to this book twice. I read it about six months ago, but at the time I wasn’t doing much with this podcast. I knew I wanted to come back around to it, and decided, even though the book was still fairly fresh in my mind, I decided to read it a second time. I could see some readers not liking Baldwins writing style as much, but I think anyone who considers themselves a bookworm of sorts, will appreciate and love this book. The second time around was just as good, maybe even better, then my first go around.
The movie was released in 2018 and was directed by Barry Jenkins. Jenkins had won best picture at the Academy Awards just two years prior for Moonlight. I didn’t look into this movie at all until having read the book, and when I saw it was directed by Jenkins, I felt he was the absolute perfect choice. Moonlight is an incredible movie and is also very poetic. Moonlight being the amazing movie that it is, I couldn’t help but compare it with his version of Beale Street. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite stack up. But that shouldn’t deter any of you who are thinking of watching Beale Street.
Kiki Layne is in the lead role as Tish. I thought she was well cast, however, in some scenes her acting was more subdued than I would have liked. She is also the narrator, and many of the lines are taken straight from the book. I liked this, because as I said, there are some beautiful passages, and it would have been a shame not to showcase Baldwin’s writing. Some viewers thought the passages were out of place though. What sounds good in writing, doesn’t always translate well to the screen and doesn’t sound natural. I agree to a certain extent, there are some scenes where it might not come across as natural, but it didn’t bother me as much as it did others.
Stephan James plays Fonny and I thought he was excellent. However, I didn’t think he and Layne had the best chemistry throughout the movie. I did really like the scene where they are having dinner with Daniel. In the book, this moment is described as,
“Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him.”
The movie really captures this well and you feel the joy as the three of them eat. There are also many scenes where the character is looking and sometimes talking straight to the camera. Not breaking the fourth wall though, because the camera is in place where the person is they are talking to. During the dinner, we see Tish and Fonny straight on, as they look into the camera, into each other, sharing this moment.
Brian Tyree Henry is in the smaller role as Daniel. Though he doesn’t have much screen time, he plays a very important character, who has some powerful and tragic dialogue as we learn what he has been through. He has recently been in prison for two years, arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Telling how the cops and the system manipulated him to plead guilty to a lesser crime, then the original one they pinned on him which he didn’t do. A foreshadowing to what will soon happen to Fonny.
Regina King is Tish’s mom, Sharon. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in this movie and it’s well deserved! She is an incredible actress, and recently directed her first feature film, One Night in Miami.
Colman Domingo plays Tish’s dad, and Emily Rios gives a powerful performance as Victoria.
The book of course, gives more details on the characters than the movie does, which is to be expected. Ernestine for example, was a bigger role in the book and we really get a feel for her has a person. Joseph is also fleshed out more, and a scene that I liked in the book, but was left out in the movie, is when he sits her down and tells her she needs to quit her job. Not only to ensure the health of the baby, but also so that she can make it to her 6pm visit to Fonny every day. She had started missing days, in order to work more and save up more money. Joseph tells her that looking after the baby and Fonny are more important. The movie does though have a very touching scene where he holds Tish and comforts her.
Sharon has the biggest role of the family members, and we see what a strong, loving woman she is in both the book and movie.
Officer Bell is the policeman who has a run-in with Fonny at the vegetable stand, and thereon out, has it in for Fonny. The actor who plays Bell is Ed Skrein. He didn’t have the same physical apparency as is given in the book of Bell, and he also seems younger. Other reviewers thought Bell’s appearance distracted from the movie, because he is a very “ugly” and cruel looking man. He was a bit overdone in my opinion as well, but I wouldn’t say his looks and acting took me out of the movie.
There is a scene that was left out from the book, where Tish says she is walking alone, and Bell comes up to her and speaks to her in a threatening way. The book also shows the lawyer, Hayward, telling them that he knows Bell is a racist and that he has already killed a 12 year old black boy recently. This isn’t mentioned in the movie.
Victoria and the arrest
The book also tells us how Victoria says she was raped by a black guy, but then in the lineup, Fonny was the only full black person they had. So of course, Victoria picked him out. Further showing the injustice of the system.
Victoria’s story is very similar in both book and movie. She disappears and is found in Puerto Rico, where she is from. Sharon is the only one who can go speak with her and try to get her to testify in favor of Fonny. I read how powerful this scene is in the movie, and how incredible King is in it. Maybe that raised my expectations, because even though the scene was well done, it wasn’t as powerful as the scene in the book. Though King does do an amazing job, when Victoria is taken away, you can see the sadness, frustration and desperation on her face.
Both book and movie we hear that Victoria isn’t quite right mentally. In the movie, from there Victoria simply disappears. The book we learn that she was a prostitute in Puerto Rico, had been pregnant, and had a miscarriage. She is taken somewhere into the mountains where she is never seen again.
The book and movie do show compassion for Victoria, but the movie I think shows more compassion. In the book, Tish sees a picture of Victoria, and calls her, her mortal enemy. I think Baldwin does this though to make a point. The system pits people against each other, so Tish thinks Victoria (another minority) is the enemy, rather than thinking of Bell and the system as the enemy. The movie doesn’t have this line, and it realistically shows that trauma Victoria has experienced, and the audience is never left feeling like she is the enemy in any way.
Fonny and his family
Once again, there is more backstory on Fonny’s family in the book. His mom is a religious nut, and his sisters are very high and might types. The women in the family don’t think much of Fonny, and don’t like Tish. Frank though, Fonny’s dad, loves Fonny. Frank, it seems, is meant to appear as the ‘good guy’ in this family dynamic, but honestly, he just seems like an angry, abusive man. Granted, of course he’s angry, his son has been wrongfully arrested, and his wife and daughters aren’t doing much to help. There is a scene in the book where Frank and Joseph are talking about the situation. Things get heated, and the daughters come into the living room and ask if everything is okay. They had been acting pretty ambivalent about Fonny, so it’s fair Frank yells at them when they ask. But then he says how if they were any kind of person, they would be out prostituting themselves, to get money together to help Fonny.
The movie also has the scene where Fonny’s mom says a horrible thing to Tish, but then Frank hits her so hard she falls down onto the floor Of course, the mom was messed up to say what she did, but Frank certainly has some major faults of his own.
There is also a sex scene early on between Frank and his wife, which is just plain awkward and also doesn’t show Frank in very good light.
Speaking of sex, even though I would highly recommend this book, I would suggest the person at least be in high school because there is the fairly explicit sex scene between Frank and his wife. Then another scene between Fonny and Tish. (As well as some language throughout). The sex scenes aren’t written in a pornographic way though, and the scene between Tish and Fonny is a really beautiful scene. (I know, I’ve used the word “beautiful” to describe the writing like ten times now). Tish and Fonny had been friends ever since they were kids, and when Tish describes their growing love and sexual attraction is a great passage.
The very first time Fonny and I made love was strange. It was strange because we had both seen it coming. That is not exactly the way to put it. We had not seen it coming. Abruptly, it was there: and then we knew that it had always been there, waiting. We had not seen the moment. But the moment had seen us, from a long way off— sat there, waiting for us—utterly free, the moment, playing cards, hurling thunderbolts, cracking spines, tremendously waiting for us, dawdling home from school, to keep our appointment. Look. I dumped water over Fonny’s head and scrubbed Fonny’s back in the bathtub, in a time that seems a long time ago now. I swear I don’t remember seeing his sex, and yet, of course, I must have. We never played doctor—and yet, I had played this rather terrifying game with other boys and Fonny had certainly played with other girls, and boys. I don’t remember that we ever had any curiosity concerning each other’s bodies at all—due to the cunning of that watching moment which knew we were approaching. Fonny loved me too much, we needed each other too much. We were a part of each other, flesh of each other’s flesh—which meant that we so took each other for granted that we never thought of the flesh. He had legs, and I had legs—that wasn’t all we knew but that was all we used. They brought us up the stairs and down the stairs and, always, to each other. But that meant that there had never been any occasion for shame between us. I was flat chested for a very long time. I’m only beginning to have real breasts now, because of the baby, in fact, and I still don’t have any hips. Fonny liked me so much that it didn’t occur to him that he loved me. I liked him so much that no other boy was real to me. I didn’t see them. I didn’t know what this meant. But the waiting moment, which had spied us on the road, and which was waiting for us, knew.
The biggest changes made to the storyline take place in the end. When Victoria disappears into the mountains, Fonny’s trail is once again postponed. However, his bail has been posted and the family is working to get the money together. Frank, feeling so depressed and disappointed in himself, and up committing suicide. The book initially seems to ends on a more hopeful note, with it looking like Fonny will soon be out. The book then ends with Tish going into labor, then the last paragraph reads, “Fonny is working on the wood, on the stone, whistling, smiling. And from far away, but coming nearer, the baby cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries, cries like it means to wake the dead.”
Definity an ambiguous ending here. Is Fonny’s hopefulness just him excepting his fate? Are they able to get the money to bail Fonny out? Does Fonny end up dying? What happens to Tish and the baby? The line, “crying like it means to wake the dead” seems to imply something, along with the fact that the cries are coming from somewhere far away. And Fonny is smiling and working on his sculpture despite the baby’s cries, which makes it seem like he doesn’t hear it.
When I first read the book, I thought it was an uplifting end, but second time around I noticed the oddities about this last scene and what it could be implying.
The movie has a concrete ending. Frank doesn’t kill himself. Tish gives birth to a baby boy, and we are taken 2 or three years into the future. Tish and Fonny Jr. are visiting Fonny in jail, while the voiceover tells us he took a plea bargain (the same thing Daniel did in the book) and is serving out his time. They reference the amount of time he has left to serve, but it isn’t shown to us.
Meaning of the title
The book never says anything to clue you in to what the name is. Beale Street is never mentioned, Baldwin leaves it to you to put in the work and see what he is referencing. The movie, however, tells you right up front. Before the movie begins, there is a quote by James Baldwin that says, “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in American was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city. Whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Neale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy. Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”
Beale Street represent black Americans and their story. If Beale Street could talk, it would tell the story of their struggles, their passion, their love, their loyalty and the injustices they have faced.
As you can see in the photo, Beale Street is in fact in Memphis. It could be that in the quote above, Baldwin misheard his father, thinking he was saying Beale Street when he was talking about a different street in NOLA. Or he could be doing it metaphorically, there are “Beale Street” all across America, hence, why the movie takes place in Harlem, where Baldwin knows there is no literal Beale Street.
Book or Movie
The movie has incredible cinematography, a wonderful soundtrack, and follows the story close enough. There was just something lacking here. In the chemistry between some of the cast, and certain details that were left out that should have been kept in. Bringing Beale Street to life is a tall order, and Jenkins does a decent job. In the end though, it just doesn’t quite stack up. As you have been reading this post, I’m sure it’s been made obvious to you that I prefer the book over the movie. If you saw the movie and found it lacking, I highly suggest you check out the book. Or the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin!