Beale Street Captures Baldwin’s wisdom, social consciousness and expansive imagination

If Beale Street Could Talk
Film Review
January 2019
“Tish, “she said, “when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies.  And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t for that same damn white man.”
That’s the mother, Sharon, speaking to her daughter Tish in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, now a film magnificently directed by Barry Jenkins who so accurately reflects the author’s wisdom, social consciousness and expansive imagination, on more than thirty occasions presenting dialogue and depicting scenes exactly as they were written more than forty years ago. Both the book and the film are vital contributions to this historical moment when we commemorate four hundred years since our ancestors landed in Jamestown.
This love story which survives a brutal, unjust incarceration, constantly delivers beauty and life-sustaining knowledge.  Fonny’s formal name, Alonzo, translates as “noble and prepared” and he lives up to that name.  In many moments he displays a wisdom that is larger than his years.  As an artist, sculptor, he recognizes that his income may not be sufficient to support a family, and so while he proposes marriage to Tish, he reminds her that the artistic process is all consuming, time consuming and she would have to work  in order to supplement their income.  He asks if she could accept him on these terms.  As stated in the book, “Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and that saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age.”  In other words, to know yourself is literally to save yourself. 
In another moment in the film, when Fonny lashes out, angrily telling Tish that she must never protect him as she just did, the entire audience gasps! That display of anger, so uncharacteristic, shocks us.  The audience hollers again in protest on another occasion when there is domestic abuse involving Fonny’s parents.  The moment, taken directly from the book, has a larger impact than that in the text, sending the clear message that the verbal curse equals in violence the slap it provokes and neither is right.  We also learn in this moment that the son is not destined to repeat the violence and faults of his father.    That’s the Hunt family.
Tish’s family, on the other hand, is a role model of love and wisdom, as revealed in the mother’s celebration of a new life on the way.  The father, Joseph Rivers, lives up to all the life-symbols associated with his last name.  Six months before the waters of life break, he invites his expectant daughter to sit on his knee and as he holds her and consoles her, we feel layers of stress melt away.  Months earlier, on the night when she conceives, Tish says, “I had crossed my river.”    The water, sky, and colors are some of the cosmic symbols which enoble this work of art.
When his future co-grandfather, Frank Hunt, laments that they lack the money needed to pay his son’s legal fees, it is Joseph who asks, “You ever have any money?”  Joseph remind him, “You fed them somehow.  You raised them somehow.”  In this moment, the lack of cash must not be a debilitating  distraction.  After all, wasn’t addiction to cash, the worship of money the foundation for American enslavement?
There is so much to recommend this film.  Beauty is everywhere.  In every face, in the clothing, in the music, in the wisdom. “He was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life.”  Tish says of Fonny.  “We moved in a silence that was music from everywhere.
The   narrator in the book says, “We don’t know enough about ourselves.  I think its better to know that you don’t know so that you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you.  But these days. Of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.”
If Beale Street Could Talk, a riveting work of art, complements discussions established by many other writers and directors, including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life and Dutchman, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness, Isasbel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Tas-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Baldwin’s other book and film, I Am Not Your Negro.
The film and he book re-mind us.  Both works are timely in helping us to retrieve the wisdom that enables us to remember who we are.

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