In his review of If Beale Street Could Talk, D. H. Alves demonstrates that both Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin articulate love as a political force, placing it at the centre of their work, be it in the format of the novel, or its cinematographic adaptation. He examines the theological nature of Baldwin’s work and how Jenkins, while having a more secular approach, translates this onto the screen.
“It’s a miracle to realise that somebody loves you.”
James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
Note: This review contains spoilers
If Beale Street Could Talk is a necessary movie. It is necessary in the way that all Black movies are necessary in a White dominated industry. It is also necessary in its beauty. Its way of manipulating cinematographic language is nothing short of a piece of art. But, ultimately, the movie is necessary in its portrayal of love, of Black love.
On a first reading, If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin’s fifth novel and the work that inspired Barry Jenkins’s adaptation, seems like a story about the injustice and corruption of the American prison system. In certain ways, it is. However, like all of Baldwin’s writing, it is essentially a book about love, and about the (im-)possibilities of young Black love in America. More importantly, the book explores the challenges young Black people face when it comes to loving oneself as well as loving an other. This is precisely the aspect in which the movie was most successful: it tackles the core of the book, its essence, i.e., love.
Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of the book is a celebration of Black love. A celebration of which Hollywood has always been in dire need. It is also a celebration of Blackness, much like Jenkins’s Moonlight was. Jenkins’s lens humanises Black individuals. His portrayal of the Black body, like Baldwin’s, is almost sacramental. And, like Baldwin, Jenkins strives to tackle these individuals’ full humanity.
Both the movie and the book show Black people in their entirety. Yes, racism is an intrinsic part of the Black experience in America, and yes, it is a source of suffering and trauma. But Black life is so much more than suffering and trauma. There is a complexity to Black life that movies often fail to portray. While it is important to talk about and address issues such as slavery, institutional racism, and police violence, it is also important to talk about the joys of being Black. And the beauty of it.
From beginning to end, the movie is gentle, it is kind. It humanises its characters, especially through the use of close-ups. And, like Baldwin, Jenkins is careful to display the humanity of all his characters. Jenkins’s lens goes deep into the humanity of the Black people he portrays, and it gives us access to it.
“Jenkins, much like Baldwin, portrays a love that exists beyond and in spite of White Supremacy. And its political power resides precisely therein. It is a love that does not aspire to be White or to conform to White standards. This love has the potential to heal and it has the potential to unify”
Jenkins, like Baldwin, establishes a reconciliation of the body and the spirit in his movie. The Black body, for Jenkins, is not something to be overcome, but celebrated. In the scenes in which Tish and Fonny make love, we see tenderness and care. We see the connection between two people, a connection that takes place in the mind, as well as the body. We see beauty. Jenkins’s gaze is not voyeuristic. It allows us to witness a moment of sharing, of communion.
The conception of their child testifies to the reconciliation of faith and sexuality that Baldwin defended. When Baldwin writes about the moment in which Fonny and Tish conceived their baby, he starts by stating that “when two people love each other, when they really love each other, everything that happens between them has something of a sacramental air.” Jenkins’s almost reverential portrayal of Fonny and Tish’s lovemaking reaffirms the sacredness of the moment of love that Baldwin defends.
Though Jenkins’s approach is rather secular compared to Baldwin’s, his treatment of Blackness is equally celebratory. As a former preacher, Baldwin remained influenced by the rhetoric of the Black church, its language and style, all throughout his life. His themes also largely existed within a theological frame. Jenkins’s cinema, on the other hand, emancipates itself from the traditional theological topos omnipresent in Baldwin’s work. As an adaptation of a novel written by Baldwin, the movie deals with religion – and the critique of traditional theology that is more excluding and judgemental than loving, – notably in the character of Mrs. Hunt, Fonny’s mother. However, the movie focuses on the bravery of daring to love while Black in White Supremacy, the complexity of Black subjectivity, and the political power of love. Most importantly, the movie portrays the utopia that Baldwin conceived in his work: a world in which love is the religion that guides our actions. In other words, the movie testifies to Baldwin’s theology of love.
Jenkins, much like Baldwin, portrays a love that exists beyond and in spite of White Supremacy. And its political power resides precisely therein. It is a love that does not aspire to be White or to conform to White standards. This love has the potential to heal and it has the potential to unify. It is love that drives the characters’ actions. It is out of love that Ernestine calls in a favour from Hayward, the White lawyer; it is out of love that Sharon goes to Puerto Rico to confront Victoria; it is out of love that Frank and Joseph start working extra hours, and stealing from their bosses so as to raise money for Fonny’s trial expenses; it is out of love that Tish constantly visits Fonny in prison; it is love that enables Fonny to survive prison; and, ultimately, it is love that enables them to survive White Supremacy. Love is the driving force of the movie and its message is clear: in love resides power.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out in UK cinemas now
D. H. Alves’s main interests include gender, race theory, theology, and diasporic Black literature. He is currently preparing his PhD candidacy on Black masculinity in James Baldwin’s fiction. Alves is based in Paris, France.