Opinion: If Beale Street Could Talk pays homage to James Baldwin

Charlie Higdon gives his take on “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

In the history of American Literature, one of the most prominent writers focused on the message of racial and social equality. Born in New York City in 1924, James Baldwin broke new ground expressing his perspectives on race, spirituality and humanity through his work in essays, poetry and short stories. Baldwin’s first success was his 1953 autobiography, “Go Tell It On the Mountain“, which tells the story of a young boy struggling with his relationship with his father and the religion he was born into. Looking back on his work, readers will find Baldwin’s message on equality for all. In 2016, Magnolia Pictures brought us “I Am Not Your Negro“, a documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished book which captures the legacy of three figures of the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, while also illustrating Baldwin’s insight on civil rights throughout history. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film at the Academy Awards one year later.

This year, Annapurna Pictures and the Academy Award Winning Screenwriter of “Moonlight” brings one of James Baldwin’s acclaimed novels to the big screen. It is a story of love, the challenges that come with it and the support of family to fight it all.

Set in the 1970s on the streets of Harlem, “If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of Tish Rivers, played by Kiki Layne, and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, played by Stephen James. Knowing each other since childhood, Tish and Fonny have grown into a loving and devoted couple who dream of having a future together. They make plans for themselves finding a place to live, supporting each other’s work and having their families come together, despite the parents’ different lifestyles. Their romance shifts into high gear when Tish tells Fonny she is pregnant. He is overjoyed; however, things take a bad turn when Fonny is arrested and thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit. Now, with her future husband in jail, Tish will fight for his freedom and clear his name, but with the baby on the way, she will turn to her family to help set things right.

Prior to seeing “If Beale Street Could Talk,” I wanted to do some research on the insight of James Baldwin. Being a fan of film and documentaries, I turned to “I Am Not Your Negro,” and it fascinated me to hear what Baldwin believed. His teachings were around the time when African Americans fought for their right to equality by dealing with separate bathrooms, entrances to businesses and seats on buses. Though this lifestyle was reformed by the government creating laws paving the way to equality, Baldwin disapproved these courses of action. He believed the path to equality is something we need to make ourselves and we should not let someone tell us to treat others equally. Though we all come from different parts of the world, and have different races, gender and sexualities, we strive to see others for who they are and how they live their lives.I believe this was one of the emphasized messages of “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

The whole film shows how the characters are living their life. I felt a sense of warmth and comfort in the setting of the story. To me, it felt I was not seeing a big city with many people moving about from place to place, but a small community where everybody knows everybody, and whenever there is a problem, everyone comes together to resolve it. The second message the film emphasized was about love, embodied in the relationship between Tish and Fonny. I thought these two were the characters that carried the story to the very end. Their relationship is the kind many people strive to have when they meet their significant other. There are no toxic elements hindering the relationship, and I admire them both on their determination to make it through the conflict, so they would be together again. I was a little disappointed to see how the conflict of the story was never officially resolved and the characters fail to achieve their goals; however, I love how the plot of the film worked its way around the failure, and the couple became a family in the end.

On a technical aspect, I loved the cinematography of the story, especially when the scene involved only two characters. In the 1991 thriller, “The Silence of the Lambs,” the film uses first person point of view shots to capture the intensity of the conversation between two characters. For “If Beale Street Could Talk,” that technique was used to emphasize the emotions in each of the main characters. Seeing the characters through a first-person lens made me feel what they were feeling, and I could understand what they were going through in the story.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” pays homage to Baldwin’s beliefs and it is a contender for this year’s award season. So far, Regina King has won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and it the film itself is nominated for three Academy Awards. It tells a wholesome story of love and family during a dark time and how they can overcome the greatest of challenges. The main characters pare what carried audiences through and made them feel the emotions expressed; however, some of the supporting characters were so flat, you could make them turn to the side and they would become invisible. The conflict was interesting, but I found it disappointing to see them not clear Fonny’s name for a crime he did not commit. I feel if these two negatives were modified, then the film would be more interesting to the viewer. With that said, I am giving “If Beale Street Could Talk” a rating of 7 out of 10, and I would recommend seeing this charming film that pays tribute to its writer and his desire for equality.


Edited by Grace Goodacre and Kaitlin Flippo

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels