The film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel uses radical love to anchor its story
T o say love makes you see the world anew sounds like a lyric to a Celine Dion ballad you cannot bring yourself to hate. It’s a truism we’ve accustomed ourselves to snicker at. But that cliche is itself given new life in the filmed adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, which lets viewers see the world anew through the eyes of two young lovers. A stroll through a park in Manhattan introduces us to Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), who are smitten with one another. Their loving gazes are replicated in the way Barry Jenkins’ camera shoots them; there’s a warm glow around them that compels you to fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other. Jenkins, whose empathetic lens guided the triptych Moonlight to a surprise Oscar win, understands that one of Baldwin’s greatest skills was in his loving treatment of bodies. This is a sensual adaptation of Baldwin’s novel that puts radical love at the center of its drama, framing rather than merely instigating the political conversations it stages. Jenkins’ film is about the radical embodied possibilities of often hollow sentiments like “love makes you see the world anew” and “all you need is love.”
“It’s astounding the first time you realize that a stranger has a body,” Baldwin writes in his 1974 novel, “the realization that he has a body makes him a stranger. It means that you have a body, too. You will live with this forever, and it will spell out the language of your life.” That’s Tish speaking, reminiscing about the first time she realized her neighbor Fonny, who she used to bathe and play doctor with, has a body now, a body that she used to long for and now cannot help but miss. Fonny is now in prison, having been accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman during a night when he was with Tish and another friend. That alibi, Tish and Fonny have learned, is worthless in the eyes of a corrupt justice system that can only be understood in terms of the violence it can impart — a system that understands black bodies as mere liabilities. It makes sense that to counteract the fear that meets black boys like Fonny, Baldwin would anchor his novel in the love between him and Tish.
But If Beale Street Could Talk also broadens, to borrow the kind of clichéd language I’m loathe to use, what it is we talk about when we talk about love. There’s a moment between Fonny and Tish, for example, that can only be described as tenderlust (admittedly a word I just made up). Having gone back to Fonny’s place on Bank street, a barren basement apartment that doubles as his woodworking workshop, the two inch towards one other, hesitant, hungry. Baldwin’s prose is full of bodily details (“and some men wash their cars, on Sundays, more carefully than they wash their foreskins”) that set up the sensuality that Jenkins brings to bear on his adaptation. And this is nowhere clearer than in the first night Fonny and Tish sleep together. “And now I was open and helpless and I felt him everywhere,” Tish tells us in the novel. “A singing began in me and his body became sacred –his buttocks, as they quivered and rose and fell, and his thighs between my thighs and the weight of his chest on mine and that stiffness of his which stiffened and grew and throbbed and brought me to another place.” Jenkins’ camera takes its cue from Baldwin’s words, finding a sensuality that feels both prurient and titillating.
In long takes that stay close to Tish and Fonny, Jenkins has us feel the lust the two feel for one another. But this is a different kind of lust. The camera doesn’t ogle the two young lovers, though it does let us witness the beauty of Stephan James in just white briefs for long enough to have you gasp for air. There’s a warmth to this scene. It almost begs to be described in groan-worthy terms as “lovemaking.” But I want to stress how much Jenkins manages to blur love and lust to the point where they’re not mutually exclusive, no matter how much of our cultural imagination would like us to think they are.
Jenkins manages to blur love and lust to the point where they’re not mutually exclusive, no matter how much of our cultural imagination would like us to think they are.
Our language for lust (not to mention its place among those pesky deadly sins) associates it with hurried violence. “Lust’s passion will be served,” the Marquis de Sade famously wrote; “it demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.” Especially when pitted against love — of which it can be both outgrowth or antidote — lust appears as a fiery emotion that devours that which surrounds it. Love is supposed to be a warmly-lit fireplace; lust a half-lit matchstick near a gas spill. In Fonny’s bed Jenkins shows us what a slow simmer of loving lust can look like.
That Beale Street continually makes me want to speak in the kind of platitudes that would normally make roll my eyes (“all you need is love,” “lovemaking”) shouldn’t suggest that this adaptation of Baldwin’s novel is in any way naive about the world these characters live in, or that its embrace of love as a concept is uncritical. Arguably one of the greatest dissectors of the American experience, Baldwin wrote Beale Street as a furious indictment of the systemic policing of black bodies in the United States. The story of Fonny being falsely accused of sexual assault (and presumably being framed for it by a vengeful white cop) merely echoed both real-life stories like the 1931 Scottsboro boys’ case and imagined scenarios like those put forth in Birth of a Nation and To Kill a Mockingbird. In the American imagination black men were always already predators. Beale Street merely set this age-old narrative in motion from the point of view of the accused.
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But Jenkins doesn’t let the bleakness of the situation, both particular and systemic, take over the film’s storytelling. Instead, he makes love — radical love — animate the world Fonny and Tish navigate. As Darrell Moore writes in his book No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, “hope often surfaces as the result of radical love.” As with Baldwin and Jenkins, “radical love” isn’t an abstraction for Moore. “In my mind,” he writes, radical love “looks like my big black family piled up in the tiny house we shared on Broadway in Camden in the 1980s. Always full. Always saturated with love. Always a center of disagreement. Always a place of shelter for those on the edges. Always the place where one could come to make amends and be forgiven. Always a site of imagination where we dreamt of new means of survival in the face of scarcity.”
Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk lives and breathes this vision of radical love. They may live in cramped quarters, but Tish and her parents’ home in Harlem is both a place for loving celebration (her mother brings out a bottle of sherry to toast her pregnancy) and heated confrontation (it’s in their living room where we see Fonny’s mother scold and humiliate Tish about carrying Fonny’s child, only to be slapped by her husband). Love won’t, of course, set Fonny free. But it will sustain him. It will nourish him. It will help him endure. And in a world that wants to destroy black bodies, the power of such tools for survival cannot be underestimated.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Makes the Old Cliches About Love Feel New Again was originally published in Electric Literature on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.