If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Back in October, I spent a week or so gadding about the London Film Festival, trying to make the most of the chance to catch previews of various forthcoming releases and a few curios that may never find a distributor here in the UK. One of the most eagerly anticipated films (for me at least) was Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, a story of love, injustice and the fight for freedom.

While I wasn’t quite as bowled over by Jenkins’ previous film, the Oscar-winning Moonlight, as everyone else seemed to be, I loved the look of the Beale Street trailer. So, with this in mind, I decided to take a chance on it – luckily for me, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the fest, definitely up there in my final top five. (If you’re interested, you can read my thread of Film Festival tweets here.)

With just under a week to go to the Beale Street screening, I picked up a copy of the novel on the spur of the moment to read on the train journeys in and out of the city (just about manageable given the book’s length). It’s a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical, that it’s going to be hard to do it any kind of justice in a review.

The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her parents and sister in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. As the story opens, Tish is visiting Fonny in prison to tell him she is having his baby, a development she believes will offer them a glimmer of hope, for Fonny loves Tish just as much as she loves him.

You see: I know him. He’s very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know – he doesn’t – that that’s the biggest reason he’s in jail. He worries too much already, I don’t want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn’t want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.

And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he’d be glad. And that might help him. (p. 12)

In creating this story, Baldwin has seamlessly woven together two closely-related strands: firstly, the families’ efforts to discredit the case against Fonny in an attempt to secure his release; and secondly, a series of flashbacks from the young lovers’ courtship before Fonny’s imprisonment. Here’s an excerpt from a scene where Fonny is declaring his love for Tish, essentially asking her to be his life partner, for better or for worse.

‘So, all I’m trying to tell you, Tish, is I ain’t offering you much, I ain’t got no money and I work at odd jobs – just for bread, because I ain’t about to go for none of their jive-ass okey-doke – and that means that you going to have to work, too, and when you come home most likely I’ll just grunt and keep on with my chisels and shit and maybe sometime you’ll think I don’t even know you’re there. But don’t ever think that, ever. You’re with me all the time, all the time, without you I don’t know if I could make it at all, baby, and when I put down the chisel, I’ll always come to you. I’ll always come to you. I need you. I love you.’ He smiled. Is that all right, Tish?’

‘Of course it’s all right with me,’ I said. I had more to say, but my throat wouldn’t open. (pp. 94-95)

Alongside the story of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, the novel also conveys the power of familial love and familial tensions in fairly equal measure. Fonny’s mother, in particular, is dead set against her son’s involvement with Tish (as are his rather stuck-up sisters), while his father, Frank, is much more supportive of the couple.

Somewhat sadly, Fonny’s fight for justice is one that remains all too relevant today, over forty years since the novel’s original publication. As might be expected, Baldwin is very adept at highlighting the injustice meted out to people of colour in a society that harbours blatant misconceptions and prejudices against certain individuals; nevertheless, these elements never feel preachy or heavy-handed, just clear-sighted, well-judged and impactful. In this flashback scene, Fonny meets up with an old friend, Daniel, who has just been released from jail – another miscarriage or distortion of justice for the sake of convenience. (Daniel is the character who is speaking here.)

‘They said – they still say – I stole a car. Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my lawyer – but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city – prove that, but he didn’t. And, anyway, I wasn’t in no car when they picked me up. But I had a little grass on me. I was on my stoop. And so they come and picked me up, like that, you know, it was about midnight, and they locked me up and then the next morning they put me in the line-up and somebody said it was me stole the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. And so – you know – since I had that weed on me, they had me anyhow and so they said if I would plead guilty they’d give me a lighter sentence. If I didn’t plead guilty, they’d throw me the book. Well’ – he sips his beer again – ‘I was alone, baby, wasn’t nobody, and so I entered the guilty plea. Two years!’ He leans forward, staring at Fonny. ‘But, then, it sounded a whole lot better than the marijuana charge.’ He leans back and laughs and sips his beer and looks up at Fonny. ‘It wasn’t. I let them fuck over me because I was scared and dumb and I’m sorry now.’ (pp. 122-123)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a book shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of lost time and happiness for Tish and Fonny, maybe even other losses for those trying to support the young lovers in their quest for a better future. It’s also a beautiful portrayal of two people who are clearly devoted to one another, united by the kind of bond that seems strong enough to endure the greatest of hardships.

And what of the film? Well, as I alluded to earlier, it’s terrific. Barry Jenkins has done a superb job of capturing the lyricism and beauty of Baldwin’s prose, transferring these qualities to the screen. From a visual perspective, the film looks gorgeous, invested as it is with a sense of emotional warmth and sensitivity that really shines through. I think it’s one of those rare examples where seeing the movie actually enhances the experience of reading of the book.

As far as I can tell, the film is due to open in the US on 30th November and in the UK on 18th January. If you like the sound of the story, please do consider going to see it when it comes out. I very much doubt you’ll regret it.

If Beale Street Could Talk is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

  1. Brian Joseph

    It is really neat for you to do a double book and film review Jacqui. The book sounds great. I have heard that Baldwin is well worth reading in general. I most likey will see the movie though. Thanks for the advance word on it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It’s more of a book review really, with just a few comments about the film tagged on at the end. I suppose I was interested to see how the director, Barry Jenkins, would capture the power and lyricism of the novel through a different art form. The story itself feels very visual, so it lends itself very well to medium of film.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui, and good to know that the film captures the book so well. Often that doesn’t happen… I read Baldwin pre-blog but not for a while and not this book so I need to add it to my list of possibles….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, yes, these adaptations can often be a disappointment, especially when the film in question doesn’t live up to or match the images we’ve created in our own heads as readers. Luckily, there was no danger of that happening here – I could tell from the trailer that it was going to be good!

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I have never read James Baldwin, this sounds so poignant and thought provoking. The quotes you have picked show Baldwin to be a writer who thoroughly engages with his characters, the voices come across so strongly. I will look out for the film.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, spot on, Ali. It’s the voices that really pull you into this narrative with their combination of truth, power and authenticity. As you say, definitely a writer at one with his characters.

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    This is one of these major authors I haven’t read, either. Must rectify that – though as I’m about to post on a Wm Trevor novel you wrote about some while ago, and I commented there that I’d really have to read it, I wonder if and when all these wishes might come true…Water floods the boat faster than I can bail

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can totally relate to that feeling of not having enough time or mental space to read all the writers on my ‘must-read’ list. It never seems to get any shorter no matter how hard I try! Anyway, I hope I’ve done enough to put Baldwin back on your radar, if only temporarily. I think he’s still an important writer, 40 or 50 years on. Even now it’s a bit disheartening to see how little has really changed for young black kids trying to do their best to get by. Black Lives Matter and all that…

      I’ve also read Baldwin’s jazz novel, Another Country, a book that explores issues of race and sexual identity. That was quite a while ago, mind – certainly pre-blog. In fact, I’m left wondering why it’s taken so long for me to get around to reading him again – a question of time, I guess!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m a little surprised that more people aren’t reading Baldwin these days. His work feels so relevant to some of the issues we’re still grappling with toady, not just in the US but in many other countries in the western world too. Maybe the film will give him a bit of a boost – if nothing else, it certainly made me want to revisit his books.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I think you’re probably right on that score. He doesn’t fit into the straight white male clique of American writers. Mind you, I think he’s all more interesting for that!

          Reply
          1. gertloveday

            Exactly. I have just read an old Carol Shields book where she attacks the dominance of white male writers as opposed to women writers. She missed the fact that writers like Baldwin were overlooked too.

            Reply
  5. Caroline

    I want to read the book and watch the movie. It’s so rare that movie and book complement each other like this. They both sound excellent. I haven’t read Baldwin in ages and only short stories. He’s so good. I should get to his novels finally.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he’s almost certainly underrated, especially in today’s day and age when his work still feels so desperately pertinent. It’s a really powerful book, but so beautifully written that you can’t help but be swept up by the story. And yes, it’s rare that a movie adaptation lives up to the book so successfully. I think it helped that I’d seen the trailer first as I was then able to visualise Tish and Fonny quite clearly in my mind while reading.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I just don’t think he’s had the same level of exposure as, say, someone like Philip Roth or John Updike, especially with the general reading public. So, I think he’s known and highly regarded in certain circles, but perhaps not generally if that makes sense? I can barely recall anyone, even across the literary blogosphere, reviewing or covering one of his books in recent years. I think Emma wrote about some of his short stories a couple of years ago, and Niven Goviden picked one of his books for an episode of the Backlisted podacst, but apart from those two, I’m struggling to recall any others.

          Reply
          1. Caroline

            Compared to those two, yes, he’s under appreciated. I seem to remember coming across reviews on blogs, only I couldn’t tell you who, apart from Emma, wrote those reviews. Possibly Danielle from A Work in Progress. Litlove possibly too. But it’s not frequent. Oh and Max maybe as well.

            Reply
  6. bookbii

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I’m glad both book and movie met your expectations; from those extracts it sounds like a powerful read. Those comments by the Daniel character up were very mindful of the current series of the Serial podcast, which follows the justice system in a predominantly black area of the US. Disturbing to think that so little has changed. I think this book might make me mad, but perhaps mad with admiration too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I had forgotten that there was another season of the Serial podcast out there. I shall have to catch up with that – thanks for mentioning it. Yes, I think you probably would feel pretty angry or frustrated with the system after reading this book, but I’d say it’s worth it for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. A word of warning, though – the novel ends with a punch to the guts, one that leaves you reeling from the wider tragedy of Fonny’s situation.

      Reply
  7. Emma

    I have read Going to Meet the Man and it’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read in the last years.
    Baldwin’s prose is exceptional. Don’t you think he gets you closer to understanding what racism does to a person when it’s aimed at them? As you say, his descriptions are accurate, objective and without any hate. It’s a fact, its described in a sensible yet sensitive way and it helps one’s perception of racism.
    Powerful. I have Go Tell It On the Mountain on the shelf, I heard it’s an excellent one too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall that review and the powerful effect the book had on you at the time. It was very striking. And yes, I complete agree that Baldwin manages to convey what it must feels like to be the victim of racial abuse and discrimination, of false assumptions and prejudices. Not in a didactic or shouty way, but in a manner that just feels very real and heartfelt. It’s all the more powerful for that. I think the film really captures that too – it’s a very emotive piece of work, beautifully shot.

      Go Tell It on the Mountain sounds excellent. I look forward to hearing how you get on with that.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No need to feel bad about that, We all have so-called ‘gaps’ in our reading however hard we try to read widely! Go Tell It on the Mountain seems to be very highly regarded, so that’s probably as good a place to start as any. :)

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I’d neither heard of the book or the film – in fact, I’ve not read Baldwin at all. Perhaps things may change as I’m finally engaging with race in America via William Kelly’s A Different Drummer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do recall your American lit month a few summers ago. Do you think you might have another of those at some point? If so, Baldwin would make a great choice. In the meantime. I shall keep an eye out for your post on A Different Drummer. It’s a book I’ve seen in various bookshops recently, so I’m wondering if its being positioned as another Stoner…a lost classic and all that?

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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