Reviews in Retrospect: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

None of James Baldwin’s books express passion, tenderness and grief as well as If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). After I read Baldwin’s Another Country (1962) during lockdown, I made it my mission to read every one of his novels, his writing completely struck me. Of-course his novels remain extremely relevant to the present day, they focus on questions surrounding sexuality, race, and religion which art and literature continue to confront. However, it was the soul and passion in his writing which had me consuming one book after another.

If Beale Street Could Talk follows 19-year-old Tish, who is desperately trying to release her boyfriend, Fonny, from jail after he is falsely accused of rape. Fonny’s arrest and the couple’s close calls with the police throughout the book are sadly more relevant than ever, as black Americans continue to be murdered needlessly by police, and as calls heighten to defund the US police. Despite this tragic plotline, it is love that is at the centre of this novel. The book deals with the strong bonds between family which form a community in 1970s Harlem. Towards the end of his career Baldwin championed love as a feeling that was powerful enough to free whiteness from its claims of innocence. Baldwin writes about black intimacy against a harsh backdrop of white racism to show the tenderness and passion of black love which is ignored in mainstream representations.

In 2018, the novel was adapted into a film which was produced by Barry Jenkins (Producer of ‘Moonlight’), the drama was praised for its romantic, arty style. However, Jenkins fails to capture the gritty reality of Baldwin’s novel. He glamorises New York with glitzy slow-motion shots and gentle music, but the New York of Baldwin’s novel is an unforgiving and cruel place where Tish and Fonny never really stand a chance of success. Although hopeful at the beginning, as the narrative continues each character is beaten down by the structures imposed by society, coming to a pinnacle with the cliff hanger ending which sees the arrival of new life, as well as the loss of the old. This shows us a cycle of tragedy enforced by a system that does everything it can to make sure that black people cannot succeed.

When Beale Street was released in 1974 Baldwin spoke to The Guardian saying, “Every poet is an optimist… But on the way to that optimism you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all”. As his novels progress, I can see heightened despair, but there is also a sense of hope that Baldwin carries throughout his work. Perhaps, Jenkins saw this hope and also decided to hold onto it.

Hannah Judge

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