The Cinematic Afterlife of James Baldwin

Film in review

Ayten Tartici
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

To navigate James Baldwin’s enduring interest in novelistic adaptations is to live through a wide spectrum of emotions. In his 1976 movie-going memoir-cum-essay The Devil Finds Work, he notes feeling haunted by They Won’t Forget (1937), a movie based on the American novelist Ward Greene’s Death in the Deep South. In one scene, a black janitor testifies against a white schoolteacher to avoid being framed for the rape and murder of a white girl, terrified of being railroaded by a corrupt justice system. On seeing the black actor Canada Lee in Orson Welles’s stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941), Baldwin exclaims at his mental unpreparedness to be so moved, recalling that he almost tumbled down from his balcony seat at the St. James Theatre. And, finally, Baldwin describes his intellectual dizziness at constantly shuttling back and forth between the films and the novels that inspired them: “I read A Tale of Two Cities–over and over and over again,” he confesses, before his beloved schoolteacher Bill Miller eventually takes him to see the movie version, “at the Lincoln, on 135th Street.”

Baldwin’s own relationship with Hollywood was rockier, reflecting a fascinated yet ambivalent stance toward swapping written text for the screen. In 1968, despite his family’s opposition, he found himself in Los Angeles working on an ever-expanding two-hundred-page screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Baldwin aspired to overcome persistent African American stereotypes that populated the American screen, as embodied in the racialized vaudeville numbers of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, performers whose success in Hollywood had come at the expense of their dignity: “It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it.” Yet in 1969, in part distraught by his own tortured relationship with Columbia Studios, which had suggested that his script was unrealistic and unfilmable, he attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and ultimately abandoned the film project.

Writing five years later, perhaps on the basis of this bitter experience, Baldwin concludes that adaptation is always a deliberately imperfect translation, a self-conscious but necessary act of “violence to the written word.” What seems to trouble Baldwin most are the invariable choices directors must make in compressing their source material, choices that come at the cost of all the other decisions that could have been made but were not. As he writes, “The effect of these deliberate choices, deliberately made, must be considered as resulting in a willed and deliberate act–that is, the film which we are seeing is the film we are intended to see.” Making an artistic choice is fateful, almost synonymous with selective forgetting, and it is into this critical context that the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins enters with the first-ever adaptation of Baldwin’s fiction in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

Jenkins has created a piercing emotional mimesis of his source material.

Published in 1974, Baldwin’s penultimate novel initially received mixed reviews. Writing for the Negro American Literature Forum, the civil rights activist Mary Fair Burks found it repetitive “ad nauseam,” recycling tired Baldwinian themes such as black victimization, police violence, and white lust for the black body. The New York Times critic Anatole Broyard panned it as sentimental, brimming with “stale jazz.” The novel, set in 1970s Harlem, traces the story of two sensitive young lovers, Fonny and Tish. Fonny is a sculptor with dreams of moving downtown. Just as they are on the verge of getting married and welcoming their first child, a white cop named Bell, who is attracted to Tish, pins the rape of Victoria Rogers, a Puerto Rican woman, on Fonny. Under police pressure, Victoria identifies Fonny in a lineup as the perpetrator, sealing his fate. Although in 1967 the Supreme Court had granted defendants the constitutional right to an attorney during a live police lineup, the process remained rife with abuse, from the biased arrangement of suspects in the room to overly suggestive directions by the officers.

While Jenkins hews closely to Baldwin’s narrative, he too must make choices, and it is his pacing that most sets the film apart from the novel, both visually and verbally. Consistent with his earlier work on Moonlight (2016), Jenkins’s cinematography unfolds in a lush, emotionally laden slowness, a 2:1 ratio visuality that soaks the eyes and diffuses like ink on a wet page, at times almost too indulgently. The cinematographer James Laxton worked with a large-format ARRI Alexa 6K camera, ideal for capturing slow motion, soft skin tones, and rich facial expressions. As Laxton noted, “It was a bit about trying to hint at the era, but not have it feel like it’s a film from the ’70s.” In parallel with the long gazes that dominate his shots, Jenkins stretches out dialogues between characters that feel more clipped in the novel. When Fonny’s friend Daniel describes the nightmare of the American prison system or when Fonny and Tish share their first night together, Jenkins draws out the viewer’s experience to the point of suspending time itself.

The long gazes of the film are as much classic Jenkins as they are Baldwinian. Critics have repeatedly drawn attention to the centrality of eye contact in the novel. As Trudier Harris noted, “The use of the eye can result in calming a disturbed person down, inspiring a depressed person, encouraging sexual submission, or creating feelings of terror in persons who lack authority and social status.” Similarly, by occupying almost three-quarters of the screen at a time, the faces in Jenkins’s Beale Street use their eyes to deliver love, comfort, and solace as well as fear, brutality, and dread. The film, as does the novel, begins with Fonny and Tish at the “Tombs,” a notorious jail now called the Manhattan Detention Center, gazing at each other, separated by glass. “I love his eyes,” Tish says, “We sat, and we just looked at each other. We were making love to each other through all that glass and stone and steel.” At other times, we witness the tense look between Mr. Hunt and his wife, a Sanctified holy roller who preaches prayer but also constantly denigrates her own son. Finally, we see the diabolical, “unanswerable cruelty” in Bell’s eye as he seeks to assert his authority over Fonny’s body, while leering at Tish with a mixture of seduction, debasement, and revenge.

Jenkins, taking advantage of film technology, pushes Baldwin’s fascination with communicating at eye level to its limits. In some scenes, the actors deliver their lines like a soliloquy, directly into the lens of the camera, rather than at their fellow actors. The desired effect here is to draw the audience in and place them in a position of subjectivity. Yet in order to magnify the emotions transmitted from one actor to the other, Jenkins also used an Interrotron, the device made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. An Interrotron relies on a two-way mirror placed under the camera lens, on which either a text or an image of the person the actor is speaking to in the scene can be projected. As a result, the actor delivers his or her lines not to a blank lens, but to an actual image of the intended interlocutor, maintaining uninterrupted eye contact through the camera lens. The outcome is the amplification of affect: the actor is no longer reading from a teleprompter or getting lost in the black hole of the camera. The glass that both separates and connects one actor with another is here also a subtle nod to the dividing glass in the jail visitation room through which Fonny and Tish nevertheless communicate. Through this device, Jenkins has created a piercing emotional mimesis of his source material.

Jenkins reminds us over and over again that there is more than one way to skin a scene. While both the novel and the film explore the complexity of human vision–mirroring the difficulties of seeing eye to eye across individual and racial boundaries–Jenkins’s camera will not stay put. It looks up and down, back to the past and forward to the future. The film opens with an unusual aerial shot of Fonny and Tish walking through a park, the tips of their heads poking through the sun-filled, autumnal yellow leaves of New York, a shot that recalls the aerial view of the kiss shared under the trees in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (2018). The view of Tish and Fonny from the sky is meant to capture their fleeting happiness, their mutual dreams of a family together. That choice is also in line with Baldwin’s criticism of A Tale of Two Cities. While an admirer of Dickens’s work, Baldwin had criticized the English author for not giving the poor a chance to reproduce and create families, by writing, as Baldwin puts it, that they “should most pray that [their] women might be barren.” Although Baldwin did not have any children of his own, he thought that there was “a sanctity involved with bringing a child into this world: it is better than bombing one out of it.” Perhaps for this reason, his narrator is a young poor pregnant woman. Later on, when Tish and Fonny’s baby is born in a bathtub, Jenkins shows us the scene from the vantage point of someone looking up through the water at the baby’s back, signaling the desire to look forward, however uncertain the future might be.

Jenkins is not afraid to expand on the novel, particularly in order to explore restrictions on the mobility of the black body. In one sequence, Tish is hired to work at a perfume counter, and in an elongated cutaway by Jenkins, she tells of being harassed by white male customers, who insist on spritzing her hand and pulling it to their noses, an uncomfortable intrusion of bodily space. That scene almost reads like a translation of Tish’s feeling of being singled out by the cop Bell in the novel: “If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, feeling, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view.” She is forced to smile until her teeth hurt in the “progressive” department store that has hired her as a token black female. At different points in the film, Jenkins also breaks the fourth wall, the self-contained vessel of the story, by projecting documentary-style historical images of black men in handcuffs or chains.

Finally, in one of the most memorable scenes, the camera takes a dreamlike, 360-degree spin around one of Fonny’s wooden sculptures, which is surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Fonny first expresses his love for Tish by giving a sculpture to her mother. It is a deeply personal gesture of both his earnest interest in Tish and his self-confidence as an artist, after he learned to work with wood at a carpenter’s apprentice school. Echoing Baldwin’s famous 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” Baldwin has Tish dismissively remark of Fonny’s apprenticeship, “The people who run these schools want to make sure that [the students] don’t get smart: they are really teaching the kids to be slaves.” Yet the discovery of sculpture at the school, an unusual career for a man of his position, becomes Fonny’s saving grace: “For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger.” The film dramatically and movingly translates this sense of a black artist’s pride through the sweeping, circular pan of the camera around the finished artwork. Jenkins, who had previously used a circling shot to claustrophobic effect in the schoolyard fight sequence in Moonlight, here redeems that cyclonic dizziness, transforming it into a triumph of creative will. He defends the right of a man to his imagination, even when, as Tish laments, artistic creativity has been socially coded as effeminate or off-limits to black men. Indeed, when the 360-degree spin shows up in another scene in the film, it is again in reference to imagination. As Fonny and Tish look for a place to move in together, they find a landlord, a young, liberal Jew, who is willing to rent out a loft. As the steadicam pans around them, the two men play a game of lifting and placing imaginary sofas and refrigerators, furnishing a not-yet-existing home for a couple in love.

My own journey with If Beale Street Could Talk mirrors the Baldwinian impulse to shuttle back and forth between text and image. I first read the novel during the summer of 2018, while preparing an essay on Baldwin’s first children’s book, Little Man, Little Man. I was lucky enough to catch the New York premiere of the film at the Apollo Theater from a mid-level balcony seat, surrounded by an electrified audience, including members of Baldwin’s family, and a college friend who had grown up Pentecostal just as Baldwin had. As we rode the subway home, we debated how, although there is more talking in Beale Street than in Moonlight, many of the scenes remained dominated by pregnant pauses, a quality that arguably differs from Baldwin’s lyrical overflow of language. The scene in which the two heads of the households, Frank and Joseph, share a drink at a bar and plot to free Fonny is an ode to the kind of durational cinema that Jenkins, an admirer of the directors Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-liang, is so fond of. When Tish’s mother flies to Puerto Rico, racing against time to convince Victoria to reconsider her testimony and to offer her black-brown solidarity, their interaction is similarly extended to its breaking point.

My friend and I were unable to decide whether what Baldwin himself had already noted in The Devil Finds Work holds true: that “a film is meant to be seen, and ideally, the less a film talks, the better.” Haunted by my curiosity, a month later I went back to see the film again. Another month passed, and this time, I reread the novel, before finally heading to the theater to see the film a third time with a notepad in my hands. While eye contact is undoubtedly one of the central themes of the novel, I realized that equally important is the passage of time, specifically African American time. The novel was partly inspired by the real-life story of Tony Maynard, Baldwin’s friend and bodyguard, whom he believed had been wrongly convicted of murdering a marine in the Village, and who was held in jail for three years pending trial. Baldwin followed Maynard from prison to prison, trying to clear his name. In a similar fashion, Beale Street chronicles the long wait of Tish and Fonny’s families as they struggle to prove Fonny’s innocence and get him out of prison before the baby arrives. As Tish remarks: “Time: the word tolled like the bells of a church. Fonny was doing: time. In six months’ time, our baby would be here. Somewhere, in time, Fonny and I had met: somewhere, in time, we had loved; somewhere, no longer in time, but, now, totally, at time’s mercy, we loved.” Seemingly, nothing can be done to speed the end of their separation: “time could not be bought. The only coin time accepted was life.” This struggle with the longue durée of African American time, the wait for justice, for basic equality, was deeply personal for Baldwin. In an interview with Studs Terkel, he reflected on the historical legacy of racism, noting in frustration, “When people talk about time, therefore, I can’t help but be absolutely not only impatient but bewildered. Why should I wait any longer? In any case, even if I were willing–which I am not–how?” That exasperation casts a darker shadow over the novel than Jenkins lets happen in the film. The final scene shows a family at least partially reunited, despite the injustice of the plea deal Fonny feels obligated to accept. Yet the slowness of the film is intentional, a means of forcing the audience to consider and endure the delay that Baldwin so eloquently denounces.

What balm, then, exists for the pain of that interminable wait? One possibility, much thought about by Baldwin in essays such as “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” is that of cross-ethnic communion. Yet such cooperation fails to materialize, either in the novel or the film. To comfort Victoria, her husband deliberately allows her to implicate and trap Fonny, a troubling gesture meant to grant her an imperfect kind of justice at Fonny’s expense. Tish’s mother, Sharon, who flies to Puerto Rico to speak directly with Victoria, fails: no mutual understanding is established despite Sharon’s emphasizing that she believes Victoria was raped, but not by Fonny.

Given the impossibility of intra-minority cooperation, what remains for Baldwin and Jenkins is black self-love in all its manifold incarnations. For his title, Baldwin repurposed the lyrics of the iconic W. C. Handy song “Beale Street Blues,” about the black entertainment district of Memphis, a site of African American cultural independence. The title is also an oblique reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated two blocks away from Beale Street. While Beale Street is not located in New York, if the streets of Greenwich Village, Fonny’s streets, could talk, they would exonerate him, for as Tish observes, it is impossible to run from Orchard to Bank Street as quickly as Bell alleges. Although Tish has been with Fonny every step of the way, and bears him a love that never resorts to silence, if the streets could talk they would also explain that “to encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love… . So, we must be careful–lest we lose our faith–and become possessed.” Although the most quoted line of If Beale Street Could Talk is Tish’s “I hope nobody has to look at anybody they love through glass,” the first line of the novel, presented in italics, is “I look at myself in the mirror.” Deploying both hidden and unhidden mirrors so often in the film, what Jenkins ultimately wishes to communicate is the necessity of self-acceptance. It may not be sufficient to overcome prejudice and gaps in communication, but, as Baldwin notes, sometimes “the world sees what it wishes to see, or, when the chips are down, what you tell it to see: it does not wish to see who, or what, or why you are.” That sense of acceptance can only begin once Fonny and Tish realize that they do not need others to love them to achieve self-worth, to embrace what they see in the mirror: bruises, disappointments, impact craters, and all.

Ayten Tartici is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Yale University. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate, among other publications. Raised in Istanbul, she lives and writes in New York City.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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