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In New Film, James Baldwin’s Art Makes Love a Revolutionary Act

“If Beale Street Could Talk” transforms love into an allegory of Black America’s struggle to survive.

Director Barry Jenkins discusses his romantic drama film If Beale Street Could Talk at the Build Studio in New York City on November 28, 2018.

“I gotta hold our baby in my arms,” Fonny said to Tish in the prison visiting room. They stared and their love passed through the dividing glass. He was in jail for a crime he did not commit. She was pregnant and due in months. “We’ll find a way,” she said, but Fonny hid his face in his hands and wept bitterly.

How does love survive separation and injustice? The question drives Barry Jenkins’s new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel, where young Black lovers are nearly destroyed by racism. Everywhere they go, bigots prey on them — whether a carping boss, predatory landlord or racist cop. Baldwin’s answer is that love lets us see (if not touch) a future beyond suffering.

Prophetic art is a tradition in Black culture, present in slave narratives, gospel, rap and films like If Beale Street Could Talk. A key feature is that love becomes a vision that transcends cotton fields, ghettoes and prisons. It shimmers like a dream in the brutal world. The implicit prophecy is that for Black life to be honored, the US must be radically transformed or cease to exist.

Prophetic Art

“The world is born when two people kiss,” wrote poet Octavio Paz. The love of 19-year-old Tish (played by a subtle Kiki Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (played with gusto by Stephen James) floats like a luminous new world. The deep joy passing through them is a threat to racists who need to see Black people as “thugs” or “jezebels,” “coons” or “sapphires.”

If Beale Street Could Talk elevates the traditional narrative of romantic love into a prophetic statement by showing how personal transformation can foreshadow future social change. It is a theme acknowledged in Baldwin’s non-fiction, but finally literary critics have focused on his oft-neglected fiction.

A recent book shines a light on his fiction. James Baldwin and the Heavenly City: Prophecy, Apocalypse, Doubt by Christopher Z. Hobson maps the religious themes binding Baldwin’s life work. A major theme is biblical, commissioning where a prophet is called to warn the powerful and bear witness to “external and interior truths.” In his novels, Baldwin transfers this “calling” to characters, who live in a secular time. Salvation is won or lost, not just in church, but in the struggle to fully love and be free from political oppression.

Prophetic art is the narrative structure that shapes Baldwin’s writing. Hobson says that the first part is to “reveal what is dark, strange, ‘dangerous, difficult and deep’,” especially sexual terror and hope. Baldwin, a gay youth in a homophobic church, was keenly aware of erotic forces suppressed by authority, and of how their expression could save one’s life.

Revealing “interior truth” has a two-fold effect. First, it demands acceptance of life’s tragic nature, in that some pain cannot be healed. Second, revealing truth, Hobson writes that “we can live differently than we do now,” which is why prophetic art “is at odds with contemporary reality and speaks of liberation.” Lastly, it is an art that speaks for a larger community that needs a vision of a future where its humanity is recognized.

The Souls of Black Folk

There are SPOILERS coming up, but it’s needed to make the point. In the first scene of If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish and Fonny walk in a park, fingers touching, and a spark lights their gorgeous brown faces. A lush, trilling jazz trumpet plays. The camera zooms on eyes that flutter with first love.

The prophetic revealing of what’s “dark, strange, dangerous, difficult and deep” begins with Jenkins’s cinematic technique. Just like in his 2016 film Moonlight, he focuses close, so minute tremors of emotion are visible. He said in a PBS interview, “The power of feeling in a person’s eyes … they can be less active and reveal so much more. I think of Moonlight, it’s like an iceberg film … 10 percent above water, and 90 percent below … we flip it upside to show you the 90 percent but it’s moving very slow.”

His cinematic language mirrors Baldwin’s prose, which also homes in on face and gesture. The technique lets us see the depths and difficulty of intimacy. When Tish and Fonny first consummate, their bodies are not displayed for pornographic ogling; instead, the slow-motion close-up shows Tish’s caution yielding to joy and Fonny’s hunger becoming careful attentiveness. We see trust building between their bodies with barely a word spoken.

In another scene, the close-up technique is used to show the traumatic afterlife of sexual violence. Later, Danny (played by a soulful Brian Tyree Henry), an old friend of Fonny’s, joins them for a dinner and talks about his two years in jail. He alludes to being raped. In the gaps of his story, his pain-stricken eyes stare back in time to a terror he barely survived.

The American nightmare that destroyed Danny edges closer to the idyllic world of Tish and Fonny. She gets an apartment but the sleazy landlord, who wants to bed her, says no, when he sees Fonny. Later, a Jewish landlord named Levy (played by the amicable Dave Franco) offers them space, and when asked why, says, “I believe in love. It’s us against the rest of them.” It seems Tish and Fonny’s romance is prophetic and will create social change as others bask in its holiness. But in the next scene, a man harasses Tish at a bodega and Fonny throws him out, but a reptilian cop with an icy stare named Officer Bell (a perfect Ed Skrein) threatens to jail him.

Finally, the American nightmare crashes in. Bell frames Fonny for raping a Puerto Rican woman. In jail, Tish tells him he’ll be a father soon. The promise of the unborn child sustains Fonny, but the longer he’s locked up, the more he loses hope. Tish’s family pulls money together for a lawyer. Tish’s mom, Sharon (a soulful Regina King), goes to Puerto Rico to get the rape victim, Victoria Rogers (an explosive Emily Rios) to recant her accusation, but Rogers screams at her to leave.

When Tish visits Fonny in jail, his eyes are bloodshot, lips split and knuckles bloody. He talks from a great distance, as if not really there. Tish tries to reach him, but he hangs up and walks away. If he is lost, so is the hope that their love symbolized for a Black future in the US.

Revolutionary Love

Baldwin is re-entering American consciousness and with him, a renewed focus on the Black prophetic art tradition. We especially need it now, when Black Lives Matter protests are no longer filling streets across the nation each week. Baldwin’s voice brings a somber reminder that Black love is a revolutionary force in a nation founded upon and dedicated to the destruction of poor, Black life.

If Beale Street Could Talk intercuts Fonny’s prison scenes with a montage of black-and-white photos, of jailed Black men and women from across the century. It is a stark jump to history that briefly makes the film into a window, where one can see beyond Fonny and Tish to the millions of Black families visiting loved ones in jail.

The film becomes prophetic art by making their love into an allegory of Black America’s struggle to survive. After Sharon fails to get Victoria to recant her false rape claim, Tish says in a voice-over that Fonny took a plea deal. The last scene shows her with their son, visiting Fonny in jail. They are older, and yet Fonny smiles with endless love at his child. Tish looks on, tired but holding on until Fonny can come home.

The great service that Jenkins did in adapting Baldwin’s book to film and Hobson in mapping Black prophetic art is now we can connect If Beale Street Could Talk to a definable legacy. The scene of Black love reaching through chains, poverty and despair to find who was lost in the American nightmare is archetypal. In music, we hear it from J-Cole’s “Be Free” to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You.” In literature, we feel it in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Assata Shakur’s autobiography Assata.

Prophetic art is driven by love. The kiss between Fonny and Tish symbolizes the will to live that drives the Black Freedom Movement. Recently, an old 1898 film called Something Good – Negro Kiss was unearthed, showing a Black couple kissing. A lawyer then took the music from If Beale Street Could Talk and mixed it with the 120-year-old footage.

I watch the film and enjoy the lovers swaying in each other’s arms, giddy and starry-eyed. I hear the jazz trumpet from the movie trill. Time seems to collapse. The truth of Black love feels powerful and present. We’re gonna be all right, I think. We’re gonna make it out of here.