The Black Feminist Roots of James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

The Black Feminist Roots of James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

The Black Feminist Roots of James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of the 1971 novel updates its black feminist framework to reflect today’s issues. 

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These days, James Baldwin is everywhere; though the celebrated African-American novelist, poet, and essayist died in France in 1987, his life and work continue to influence new generations of artists. A score of writers, from Hilton Als to Jacqueline Woodson, have testified to Baldwin’s importance to their careers and to our future; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s A Rap on Race are only two of the recent works inspired by him. Even academic publishers are cashing in: A few months ago, Duke University Press republished Baldwin’s long-out-of-print and critically panned children’s book, Little Man, Little Man. It’s clear we’re in the midst of a Baldwin revival. But his return prompts some questions about how we’ve treated his legacy: Which of the many Baldwins from his nearly 40-year career have we brought back to life? And more important, is this revival giving us the Baldwin we need?

If Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is any indication, the public adores the Baldwin who criticized state violence. A critical and financial success, Peck’s documentary focuses on the writer’s unfinished book on the intertwined lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. By juxtaposing Baldwin’s analysis of the civil-rights movement with the contemporary movement against police brutality, Peck’s film captures the salience of Baldwin’s work on state violence toward black Americans.

Yet Peck’s reading of Baldwin is one-sided. The documentary mentions Baldwin’s sexuality only once, via an FBI memo, and by omitting Baldwin’s own writing on the subject in favor of his writing on straight black men, Peck’s film suggests that queerness is unrelated to his criticism of the state. As the scholar Dagmawi Woubshet wrote in The Atlantic, by ignoring this dimension, I Am Not Your Negro “forgoes the chance to have Baldwin’s complex life reflect the complexity of our contemporary identities.”

When it was announced that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins would adapt Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, it seemed that the on-screen Baldwin revival would finally take gender and sexuality more seriously—not only because Jenkins directed one of the greatest queer romance films of our times, but because of his choice of text: If Beale Street Could Talk was shaped by the outpouring of black feminist writing in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Until the 1970s, Baldwin’s writing rarely engaged with the critiques of black women writers. But in the early years of that decade, their examination of American society became central to his own writing. His evolution was spurred, in part, by a public conversation he had in 1971, on the PBS show Soul! with the poet Nikki Giovanni. Early in the program, Baldwin noted that black men are treated like “a nigger” at work and in public, which causes them to mistreat their families. Giovanni responded forcefully to Baldwin’s statement: Black women, she pointed out, certainly do know the effects that racism has on their partners, and thus they build romantic connections based on something greater and more personal than breadwinning alone. So the least these men can offer in return is good treatment.

In many ways, Beale Street synthesized Baldwin’s and Giovanni’s perspectives by telling a love story about an incarcerated black man and his pregnant girlfriend primarily from the girlfriend’s perspective. The conflict that animates the novel begins when Clementine “Tish” Rivers and her boyfriend, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, search for apartments in Lower Manhattan. After a series of landlords refuse them, one offers to rent to Tish alone, but balks when Fonny joins her. The landlord “figures a black chick by herself, way downtown,” would sleep with him—but not if she has a boyfriend.

The intertwined problems of racism and sexism intensify when a white man sexually harasses Tish. When Fonny intervenes, a police officer attempts to arrest him, until Tish places herself between the two, saving Fonny for the moment but instilling a grudge in the officer. This bad blood, Tish believes, later leads the cop to frame Fonny for the sexual assault of a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers. The rest of the novel follows Tish and her family’s struggle to clear Fonny of the charges and free him to return home before their child is born.

Focused on both the sexual assault of women of color and the representation of black men as rapacious, the novel deftly captures the connection between the two that Angela Davis describes in her 1983 book Women, Race, and Class. “The fictional image of the Black man as rapist,” Davis writes, “has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Black woman as chronically promiscuous.” For Davis, this perceived promiscuity licenses sexual violence against black women. As a result, black women who organized against rape also challenged the prevailing stereotype of black males. By making both central to the conflict in Beale Street, Baldwin transforms black-feminist analysis into a novel.

This is not to say that Beale Street is the perfect black-feminist novel or that Baldwin became the perfect black feminist after its publication. As Mychal Denzel Smith wrote recently for Harper’s, Baldwin centered “a masculinist idea of freedom” in his writing, which focused primarily on the plight and liberation of black men. In his 1984 conversation with Audre Lorde in Essence, Baldwin asks if she realizes “that in this republic the only real crime is to be a black man?,” prompting Lorde to respond: “I realize the only crime is to be black, and that includes me too.” Even late in his career, Baldwin’s concern for black men so narrowed his vision that he couldn’t see racism’s persecution of black women. These blind spots remind us that Baldwin was hardly the flawless sainted figure that the revival might suggest, so much as he was a man always in transition. This growing, changing Baldwin is the real author of his works, and the one we should look to today.

Baldwin’s novel opens with Tish inspecting herself in the mirror. Jenkins’s largely faithful adaptation, however, starts elsewhere. His film begins with a shot of Tish and Fonny viewed from above in a park, her yellow jacket matching both his yellow shirt and the slowly dying autumn leaves. They kiss amid the foliage before an abrupt cut to Tish, who we now realize is remembering that idyllic day as she looks at Fonny through the glass dividing the captive and the free. “I hope nobody ever has to look at someone they love through glass,” she tells us. Although the film later enters other characters’ perspectives, Jenkins wants us to know from the outset that this film will be told from Tish’s point of view.

Yet sympathizing with Tish, who insists on Fonny’s innocence, raises problems for the audience when it comes to sympathizing with a survivor of sexual violence, Victoria Rogers. Speaking about his treatment of the character in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jenkins said: “What I really wanted to do was give Emily Rios, who plays Victoria, a chance to look the audience right in the eyes so the audience has to realize that there is someone here who has been victimized and she is not the antagonist of the film.”

By doing so, Jenkins foregrounds the plot’s most pressing political issue: How can we hold people accountable for the sexual violence done to women of color without reproducing the racist construction of black men as rapists; without assaulting people unjustly, as incarceration does; and without punishing the loved ones of the perpetrators?

Jenkins’s film and Baldwin’s novel differ in their resolution of this conflict. Baldwin emphasizes the policeman’s motive for persecuting Fonny; he implies that the cop may have killed a black boy and so is racist; and he provides ample evidence that Fonny could not have been at the scene of the crime. Jenkins also provides ample evidence for the cop’s ulterior motives, but he’s more interested in the system that produced the cop. For Jenkins, the villain is the violent structure caging Fonny: the prison.

Jenkins also extends his film beyond the end of Baldwin’s novel. The novel ends before Tish and Fonny’s baby arrives, but the film’s closing moments depict Tish with her young child visiting Fonny in prison. Like the other loved ones awaiting the incarcerated, Tish and her child sit at a table, the child looking down while guards hover by the walls. At last, Fonny enters in a jumpsuit, presumably the only outfit in which his son has ever seen him—a punishment for their child as much as it is for Fonny and Tish. Then Jenkins closes the film. Prison and mass incarceration, Jenkins seems to insist, are the real antagonists. They are the worst possible way to produce safety for communities of color.

By concluding his film with this image of incarceration’s effects on the family, Jenkins’s film updates the novel, employing a new generation of feminist thinking in much the way that Baldwin did in the 1970s. Recent anti-carceral black feminists like Beth Richie, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Dorothy Roberts have focused on ensuring black women’s safety while making a compelling case for prison abolition. As Richie recently argued in her speech “Reimagining the Movement to End Gender Violence,” investing in prisons to make people safe not only endangered the very women that prisons were supposed to protect but also “did not do anything to make the fundamental changes necessary to end gender violence.”

The film also returns to another theme found in much of Baldwin’s writing: that of perseverance. When Fonny arrives in the visiting room, he opens a prepackaged snack, presumably purchased from a prison vending machine, and is about to eat it when his son stops him: They have not said grace. The three then hold hands and pray. For Jenkins, the state may succeed in killing some black people, but others will survive its assaults. Even in prison, the love within a family can hold its members together.

“[W]ho else has wrested as much beauty from abject pain?” Jenkins asked in a recent essay for Esquire. “Who else has manifested such joy despite outsized suffering?” He was speaking of black people in general in his piece, but it’s hard not to think of incarcerated black people and their families in particular, who wrest beauty from these sites of pain like the family at the end of the film, saying grace behind prison walls. Where the Baldwin revival emphasizes the writer’s trenchant analyses of state violence, Jenkins’s film focuses instead on his vision of how black Americans find joy in times of suffering. As was often the case with Baldwin, Jenkins’s subject is not black death but black life. If others follow his example, the Baldwin revival—and we as its audience—will be all the better for it.

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