What's Tony Thinking

If Beale Street Could Talk


If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins 2018 film based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name.

Linda and I saw it two nights ago. We both found it very powerful.

Jenkins previously directed the Academy Award winning Moonlight, about a young black boy and the man he becomes.

Beale Street tells the story of imperiled love. The love of Tish and Fonny, a young black couple. The peril is a country which in Fonny’s words to a friend, “Sure does hate niggers.”

While the story is different the two films have much in common. In both we see their African-American characters in frequent close-ups and often in silence.

This technique communicates several different things. One, is the rich inner life of the characters. Lots going on inside. Lots unspoken.

It also communicates suffering.

In some ways, this is a contrast to stereotypical presentations of blacks which we’ve seen for some time. These present characters with a lot of joking, smiling, laughter and what you might call “horseplay.” Mostly fun-loving, sometimes spiced with dark humor. I have in mind movies like Barbershop as well as any number of tv shows.

Jenkins’ characters are more interior, reflective and brooding.

Not only does this presentation suggest a complex inner life, but it seems a way in which Jenkins speaks, by not speaking, of the weight of racism in all its complex manifestations. It is more than words can bear.

In one especially powerful scene Fonny’s friend Daniel, who is just out of prison after being sent up and set up on car theft charges (“Fonny, I don’t even know how to drive a damn car”), communicates the terrible weight of that word-defying experience of being a black man in a white man’s prison almost entirely non-verbally. His face, his eyes speak volumes.

The narratives in both cases also provide close case-studies for what Michelle Alexander described in her book, The New Jim Crow. A system of mass incarceration that leaves few black families in America untouched.

Fonny is framed on rape charges. Though innocent, he eventually pleads guilty (“plea bargaining”) to a lesser charge to avoid the risks of life in prison or a capital sentence.

Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk was published in 1974.

In 1974 I was a first year student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I was doing “field work” at a small, black and white Presbyterian congregation near Hell’s Kitchen, “Good Shepherd Faith Presbyterian.” It was a wonderful and formative year for me.

It had only been a few years since the Attica uprising. In response to Attica this small church had a modest prison ministry in which I became involved. I worked one afternoon a week as a chaplain at the Bronx House of Detention.

I remember one of the first inmates I met, a young black man who had recently come to New York from South Carolina. He seemed completely bewildered by what had happened to him and where he found himself. He was very handsome, very quiet — like Fonny in the film.

“Robert” had no money for bail, and no hope of getting any while locked up.

I managed to talk several more affluent Presbyterian churches in Queens to pooling some funds so that Robert could make bail.

All of this came back to me watching Beale Street. A young black man completely at the mercy of a system he didn’t understand. Robert too eventually accepted a plea bargain, which meant jail time upstate and a criminal record. If he wasn’t already far behind the starting line (and he was), those two marks on his record put him way back.

It wasn’t easy to make conversation with the men I met in the Bronx House. So I would do pencil sketches of them as we visited. I think they experienced these sketches as some sort of affirmation of their humanity. At least that was my intention.

Despite all of this If Beale Street Could Talk does not end on a note of despair.

Fonny is serving out his shorter term. He and Tish have a healthy boy. Their love endures. Beyond that we don’t know.

This past December a bill was passed by Congress and signed into law, “The First Step Act,” which is designed to reduce the prison population instead of expanding it. It is a first step in such a direction in a long time.

Democrats and Republicans were able to come together on this legislation. Both have recognized the futility and costliness of mass incarceration.

One of the drivers of the trend of a soaring prison population has been so-called “three strike laws.” Remember when those were passed? Didn’t they sound so tough? The First Step Act reduces sentences for three felony counts (“three strikes”) from life imprisonment to 25 years. Not exactly lenient, but a first step.

Many more steps are needed.

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