The Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim claimed that many musicals are failures because “their authors are blinded by the attractiveness of the source material,” but “they never ask themselves what music will do for the story that hasn’t already been accomplished by the original author.” Sondheim calls these works “why” musicals, because there’s no reason why they need to be musicals. On paper, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” seems like a “why” film. The film opens with a quote from Baldwin, reminding us that he was one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century: “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street … Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and possibility, the absolute necessity to give expression to this legacy.”
How can a film give just expression to that legacy? How do you put Baldwin’s lyrical language into a motion picture? Most directors would probably be unable to answer these questions, but Jenkins is a genius; he comes to realize that his cinematic poetry can match Baldwin’s soulful prose.
In both book and film, the story of “If Beale Street Could Talk” is moving. Tish falls in love with her best friend Alonzo, nicknamed “Fonny.” They dream of starting a life together, but all their hopes are shattered when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. Then, Tish discovers that she is pregnant. Her family comes to her aid, and they embark on an effort to exonerate Fonny. Baldwin recounts this heartbreaking tale from Tish’s perspective, and Jenkins attempts to bring the first person into the film. Tish comments on some events in voiceover. Initially, this device is awkward because Tish is simply conveying exposition.
Although this technique is not always successful, Jenkins has more ingenious ways of paying homage to Baldwin. He tells the story nonlinearly. When the film begins, Fonny is already in prison awaiting trial. Then, Jenkins flashes back to Tish and Fonny’s courtship and moves forward to Fonny’s preparations for court. In arranging events in this manner, Jenkins adopts Baldwin’s view of history. Baldwin once remarked, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Because Jenkins juxtaposes disparate moments in time, he creates the impression that the characters are always reckoning with the past as they survive in the present and make plans for the future.
For Baldwin, history was inextricably linked to love. In his 1963 essay “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin explains why he loves his brother. He tells his nephew, “Behind [his] father’s face as it is today are all of the other faces that were his.” Although Baldwin has come to love his brother in all his manifestations, love is mutable. Jenkins also captures the changing nature of love. Take the relationship between Tish and her mother, Sharon: At the beginning of the film, when Tish announces that she is pregnant, her mother calmly reassures her that everything will be alright. Sharon is a grounded, generous woman, and she doesn’t usually say much. Instead, she expresses her profound love for her daughter in silent moments, when she simply looks at her. Jenkins does not try to hurry the plot along. Instead, he lets us savor these quiet, delicate exchanges of affection.
Later in the film, however, Sharon becomes much more assertive. She eventually realizes that Tish and Fonny’s relationship represents more than a fling. Her love for her daughter evolves so that she also feels responsible for Fonny’s well-being. She resolves to do everything in her power to free him. She even travels to Puerto Rico by herself to try and find Fonny’s accuser. As she sets off on this quixotic journey, Jenkins includes a scene where she tries on a variety of different wigs. She assesses whether they add to her appearance. This may seem superfluous to some, but it shows Sharon’s unwavering dedication. She is so desperate to accomplish her mission that she will attend to every detail.
Baldwin once wrote that he did not discuss love “in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Jenkins’ depiction of love thoroughly transcends movie romance, even during the most ordinary moments. Sex scenes have been a staple of cinema since the ersatz era of Rudolph Valentino. Jenkins does include a scene in which Fonny and Tish make love. Still, he does not settle for clichés. He focuses on the music pervading the atmosphere and the warm light filling the room instead of their bodies. He cuts between their bed and the needle reaching the end of the record. Taken by themselves, these small details mean nothing. Yet, just as Baldwin puts one word after another to render a stirring sentence, Jenkins combines a concatenation of images to create a haunting sequence.
Indeed, scenes like this are reason enough for Jenkins to adapt Baldwin’s novel. Jenkins’ images do enhance Baldwin’s work. Baldwin titled his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” but the film reveals that words are not absolutely necessary for Baldwin’s story to resonate.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.