By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J
The title of the esteemed literary giant and activist James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem-based novel evokes a significant street in Memphis, both referring to “Father of the Blues” composer W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues,” written in 1916 by Handy as a farewell to Memphis’ Beale Street, and Baldwin’s own quotes as follows: “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.”
Nearly 45 years later, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” 2016) brings this love story, at turns painful, sweet and tragic, to the big screen, after having written the script years ago. I was able to attend a private screening hosted by Cinema Chicago/Chicago International Film Festival at AMC River East 21.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of two young lovers—Tish and Fonny—who have known each other since childhood. Tish is 19 and works as a saleswoman, and Fonny is 22 and his main interest is working as an artisan who creates beautiful wood sculptures.
Tish (KiKi Layne) comes from a hip, laid back family that includes her parents and one sister. Fonny comes from a Bible-thumping, Holy-rolling family that includes his parents and two sisters. The former child actor and award-winning actress and director Regina King plays Tish’s mom Sharon Rivers, Colman Domingo plays Joseph Rivers, Teyonah Parris is Ernestine Rivers; Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt is played by Stephan James, his mom is played by Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach plays Frank Hunt (who isn’t particularly religious) and Fonny’s sisters are played by Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne. Brian Tyree Henry also stars as a childhood friend named Daniel.
As Tish (who is a DePaul University graduate) and Fonny discover that they can be more than just friends and fall in love, they plan to marry. However a racist roadblock derails these plans when Fonny is set up by a racist cop and thrown into a police lineup, where a Puerto Rican woman says that he is the man who raped her. Right around this time Tish has to visit Fonny in jail to tell him about her pregnancy. She also must tell her family, who takes the news well and vows to help her and especially work to get Fonny released. After all, he is innocent.
The next hurdle is to tell the Hunts that a new addition is expected and after a few congratulatory shots of Hennessy and dancing and joyous proclamations, Sharon invites them over. To the contrary, once the Hunts arrive, the occasion turns into an explosive scene that reminds me of what I have read about Baldwin’s strictly stifling Pentecostal upbringing. (His stepfather was a preacher and Baldwin himself was beginning to preach until he eschewed Christianity as “reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression and delaying salvation until a promised afterlife.”)
Mrs. Hunt in a blistering “sermon” uses the Bible as a tool to curse the unborn baby; reminds Tish and her family of their shortcomings and implies that her two church-going daughters would never end up as unwed mothers. An implication to which Ernestine retorts that nobody would ever fornicate with them—however using another word beginning with the letter “F.”
The rest of the film reveals through flashbacks Tish and Fonny’s unwavering commitment to one another and Frank, Joseph, Tish and Sharon’s relentless efforts to get money for an attorney and send Sharon to Puerto Rico to confront the rape victim and persuade her to recant her charges against Fonny. This scene is also heartbreaking, as Sharon tries to empathize with the woman while constantly insisting that Fonny is innocent.
The themes of family, religion, racism, a flawed criminal justice system, undying love and faith in humanity permeate “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and I can see Baldwin’s hand all through it. The dialogue and situations are sharp and unapologetically Black—as Black as they can be, considering that the novel upon which it is based was written in the mid 70s.
After the screening, Jenkins, Layne and James participated in a question and answer session, led by Chicago entertainment journalist Jake Hamilton. “We made this film in the spirit of James Baldwin during a 32-day shoot and after gaining permission from his family,” Jenkins said. “I wrote the screenplay around the time that I had written ‘Moonlight,’ and the next obstacle was getting to know the estate [so he could get its approval].”
Layne added that she hadn’t read Baldwin’s work and that she wanted to tell the truth behind the characters. “There are real Fonnys and Tishes out there.” James echoed Layne’s sentiments, as he said he sort of modeled his character after the wrongly accused Kalief Browder (New York): “There are a million Fonnys in this world, and I wanted to give a voice to those families. Baldwin put so much love and pain on the page.”
The most recent account of Baldwin’s work to hit the big screen was “I Am Not Your Negro,” where issues are still relevant although written decades ago. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is no exception. “There are timely aspects. It speaks truth to power and could very easily happen today. Baldwin will always be relevant,” Jenkins said. He added that Baldwin and his writing were “sexy and funny as hell, with dialogue that at times had people cutting each other.”
Finally, Jenkins encouraged movie goers to see the film. “Enjoy the film. It’s Baldwin, and you have to leave the theatre with something beautiful, lush and rich.”
I wholeheartedly agree. You can never go wrong with James Baldwin. The issues in the film are happening today, except in this case the elements of the sexual assault pitted two people of color against each other. More importantly, it shows Black men as humans and Black families bonding together to address a grievous situation while still supporting a young, unwed mother whose hope is that the baby’s father will be released in time for the birth.
I admire Baldwin’s work so much that I wasn’t satisfied until I was able to enjoy hot chocolate at the Café de Flore in Paris last year—a place where history tells us that Baldwin frequented often after he left a racist America when he was 24 with reportedly just $40 in his pocket. And while as with many stories some liberties may have been taken, Jenkins, who says he adores Baldwin as well, did a great job with this film.
As I mentioned in my title “If Beale Street Could Talk” could be a metaphor for many streets in Black neighborhoods where crime is prevalent and no one wants to snitch. If only those streets could talk, many unsolved killings might be solved. “If Beale Street Could Talk” enjoys a limited release on December 14 and is due to expand in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day. Find theater locations and times and treat yourself to a holiday gift that you won’t regret. Get on the Baldwin and Barry train.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the award-winning Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.”