If Beale Street Could Talk: How Does Barry Jenkins Measure Up to James Baldwin?
Ahead of the Oscars Ben Rybeck Previews the Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees
By a wide margin, If Beale Street Could Talk is the prestige literary adaptation of this Oscar season. Which isn’t to say it’s a better film than the other nominees (though it may very well be), but that the pedigree is high and the ambitions are lofty. Black Klansman, for all its virtues as text, is not really great literature, so Spike Lee imbues every page with his very joint-ness; it’s easy for him because he is clearly the greater artist (no offense to Stallworth, who is clearly the greater cop).
The pedigree of Beale Street is daunting, however: writer/director Barry Jenkins is following up his masterpiece, Moonlight, and James Baldwin is, well, James Baldwin. So how do the two measure up with one another? Is this an inferior artist slaughtering a great artist’s work? Or is this one of those cases whose recent examples include In the Bedroom, No Country for Old Men, and Inherent Vice: not so much an adaptation of source material, but a translation of an artist who mastered one medium by another artist who has equally mastered another?
An adaptation like this requires somebody like Jenkins who, in just two films, has shown himself as a filmmaker with a distinct and powerful sensibility. Consider Moonlight, which swoons with classicism and romance when you think it’s going to dive into the grit of its surroundings. (Sean Baker, of The Florida Project, does similar work these days; Ramin Bahrani used to and will hopefully again). Moonlight, the story of a young man discovering his homosexuality against a backdrop of cultural machismo, is tough but not bleak; in its final moments, its protagonist has found a place for himself in the world—a small place, but a place nonetheless.
This may seem at odds with Beale Street, a book that rarely locates grace and always contains shades of brutality, even in lighthearted moments. (Baldwin, one of our more tortured writers, rarely found much to be optimistic about, and with good cause.) The novel is part love story, part crime saga, part thesis on racial inequality. Baldwin’s young lovers, Fonny and Tish (who narrates), are separated by Fonny’s incarceration after being wrongly accused of rape (a crime pinned on him by a monstrous cop who licks his lips when he talks). As if all of this isn’t enough, Tish is pregnant. Her family (consisting of practical mom Sharon, boisterous father Joseph, and feminist sister Ernestine) needs to pull together some money—first for Fonny’s lawyer, then for a trip to Puerto Rico, where Sharon will try to get the accuser, recently fled from New York, to recant.
Baldwin wrote the book in the early 70s; do you really think things are much better now?
This is bold storytelling—melodrama, really, away from which Baldwin does not shy. It’s a potboiler. Or to put it another way: melodrama becomes the vehicle Baldwin drives through a congested New York, where black is constantly beaten down by white, where men are expected to be men and women are expected to be women, where the crowds are a constant reminder (to Tish, particularly) that there is violence—sexual and racial—everywhere. By the novel’s end, the baby is born crying (“the baby cries and cries and cries and cries,” etc.) so loud that “it means to wake the dead.” Baldwin wrote the book in the early 70s; do you really think things are much better now?
Baldwin’s novel contains romance—“It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you,” Tish remarks—but mostly to be worn down. There’s an oppressive heel on the lovebirds’ back—a recognition that none of what they’re feeling is safe or ideal. This drifts into the relationship itself, and the language Baldwin uses at key moments. The first night they have sex, for instance, it hurts, and part of Tish wants to “throw [Fonny] off,” but he thrusts “with all his might” and, as Tish says, “strangled my scream with his tongue.” It’s not rape in the book, but uses the disturbing language thereof. Afterward, there is blood and semen everywhere. “Well,” Tish tells us, “we were something of a sight.”
These moments, harsh in Baldwin’s book, shimmer romantically in Jenkins’ film. Lots of what surrounds Tish and Fonny is impure, but not their love. In the moments between them, the score soars and the camera drifts and they seem isolated, completely together. Jenkins presents the backstory of their relationship in elliptical scenes, making poetry of what unfolds more prosaically in Baldwin’s book. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves the two young lovers viewing a loft they hope to rent. It’s empty, and Tish is having a hard time visualizing where the furniture will go—how to make it a home. Fonny begins to sweetly mime moving in, grasping air and calling it a fridge and grunting as he lifts, even enlisting the help of the kindly young man renting to them. The book contains this scene in broad strokes—they do look at a loft, there is a kindly young man—but the imaginary furniture is, no surprise, Jenkins’ invention.
Do not mistake Jenkins for a soft filmmaker, however. His adaptation contains as much terror as Baldwin’s novel, but he filters this terror in different ways. While Baldwin sinks the reader into the nastiness of the world his characters inhabit, Jenkins juggles different cinematic modes to zoom in and out as he pleases. There is the expressionistic romance, yes, but there’s also documentary moments, where Tish narrates over still photographs stories of racial injustice. There are moments where Jenkins engages in horror tropes, as when a friend (Daniel) visits Fonny, fresh from jail; he begins the hang-out jubilant but descends into dread as he hints at his time locked away.
“But you don’t know—,” Daniel says, “the worst thing, man, the worst thing—is that they can make you so fucking scared. Scared, man. Scared.” (This dialogue I have lifted from the book, but Jenkins uses it too.) Baldwin becomes far more explicit about what Daniel endured in prison, but Jenkins merely leans into this moment, presenting Daniel in extreme close-up, ambient noise buzzing on the soundtrack. In a sense, it’s more frightening this way—an ambiguous horror, left to the viewer’s imagination. It reverberates throughout the film, underscoring Fonny’s own terrors without subtracting from them.
Jenkins does the right thing as a filmmaker: he approaches the material with reverence (save the end, the plot is largely the same), but also understands that not all of Baldwin’s moments are inherently cinematic. Or maybe it’s just that film has a way of needing less than novels do: prose requires explanation, cinema requires gestures. Even in moments where Jenkins seems most reverent, he’s doing careful edits. Baldwin populates his book with long scenes that develop almost like plays—tons of dialogue, swift character detail. In one such scene, Tish’s family invites over Fonny’s, the Hunts, who have their problems, to put it mildly. The men slap each other’s backs (oh, men!), but the women tear each other to shreds. There’s so much contempt here that it almost hurts to read. When Mr. Hunt strikes Mrs. Hunt (she’s a terror, but did she deserve to be slapped? Neither Baldwin nor Jenkins examine this too closely), the two families become vicious, calling each other names with brutal intent.
Jenkins is a powerful artist, and is not making Baldwin’s version of Beale Street, rather his own.
Jenkins ends the scene quickly; Baldwin lets it roll, until finally the women are hurling so much invective at one another that everyone involved seems terrible—even the characters we’re supposed to like. Elsewhere, the trip to Puerto Rico involves way more process (how to get there, what to do, etc.) in Baldwin’s book than in Jenkins’ film, because Jenkins understands when the narrative needs to move—he’s working in a temporal medium, after all, without space for Baldwin’s asides.
But many of the moments that Jenkins elides are moments that hint at one of Baldwin’s other preoccupations: the way the genders respond to one another. Men are supposed to do certain things, women other things. Women get hit a lot more in the book than in the film. Men consider women relatively helpless. (Tish’s father makes her quit her job because it’s not good for her pregnancy. Instead, he thinks she needs to be visiting Fonny in jail every day—better for her pregnancy how?) The book simultaneously fawns over men (“I had never seen the love and respect that men can have for each other,” Tish marvels at one point) and recognizes their destructive power—especially when it regards the way white men look at black women. Jenkins’ film, however, takes one brief moment from Baldwin’s book—a description of how white men hold onto Tish’s hand tightly when smelling her scent at the perfume counter where she works—and allows this mere visualization of white masculine (I know what you’re thinking: tautology, right?) privilege do all the work.
To be clear, I do not consider faithfulness to source material a virtue when it comes to adaptation. Jenkins is a powerful artist—not one as experienced as Baldwin when he wrote this book, sure, but give Jenkins time—and is not making Baldwin’s version of Beale Street, rather his own. The biggest change occurs in the end. Remember Baldwin’s baby, crying and crying and crying? This is a haunting note on which to end—that all the love attached to this child cannot prevent the suffering intrinsic in its life as a black American. Jenkins’ ending is more ambiguous, but equally chilling. Outwardly (if cautiously) happy, Jenkins shows Tish visiting Fonny in prison, with the child—now a toddler—alongside her. Rather than crying, the toddler shows life, asking questions, munching on snacks.
In a rare wide shot, Jenkins shows this family sitting at a table amongst many other inmates during visitation hours. There’s love here, but there are also guards—white guards—circling the table, eyeballing Fonny and Tish. Watching this scene, I could not stop staring at those guards. There’s unbelievable tension here, which Jenkins lingers in before his final cut to black. I have simply no clue how he could have done Baldwin’s ending—the baby crying. With this ending, he takes Baldwin’s notion that some histories can never be escaped and translates it into scene. (There is also, in Baldwin’s book, a final development involving Fonny’s father committing suicide, but he handles this so glancingly as an author that he hardly seems to care, and Jenkins has wisely excised it.)
There is so much to study here about how adaptation works, but Jenkins seems to have made this his project as a filmmaker (Moonlight came from a play; his next project is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a contemporary novel that already feels as sacred as anything by Baldwin). Tish may narrate the film, as she narrates the book, but Jenkins understands that cinematic narration functions differently: film (with some exceptions, like Scorsese’s chattier narrators) rarely feels told. Baldwin wanted to imbed his reader in Tish’s point of view, a claustrophobic look at race and gender and class, but he can’t help but cheat, occasionally letting Tish narrate scenes that she was not present for, with a level of detail she never could have gleaned secondhand. Jenkins, free from point of view, can show us more, and faster—can take some of Baldwin’s moments and streamline them without dishonoring the source material. Perhaps If Beale Street Could Talk wanted to be a film all along.