Shot on the street, shot in a car, shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: The films of 2018 didn't shy away from showing police brutality toward black people. Blindspotting, Widows, The Hate U Give and Monsters and Men all dramatized a phenomenon that surged into the news cycle the past few years.
But the story is nothing new. James Baldwin was on top of it 44 years ago, when he published perhaps his best novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. It's the story of Fonny, a young black man wrongfully incarcerated for rape, and his girlfriend, Tish, who is pregnant with their child. Fonny is in prison because of a crooked police officer with a grudge.
Of course Baldwin was on top of it. He was on top of everything. He could see around corners. Now Beale Street is a lush, lyrical movie, adapted and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). The film, which opened on Christmas Day, reminds us how little has changed. And it reminds us of Baldwin's prescience, and his ability to frame an issue within a human context, with specific lives.
"He was super prescient about turning the issue into story," Jenkins says by phone on the day of Beale Street's New York opening. "But he was also super diligent about not presenting it as something that makes us say, 'Oh, of course, this has always happened.' These are people, and there are consequences. These are two young black people who are soulmates."
Indeed, If Beale Street Could Talk is an achingly romantic film. Much of this quality comes from the two leads, KiKi Layne and Stephan James, and their characters' forced separation that requires them to see and speak to each other through a pane of glass. "I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass," Baldwin writes, capturing an essential part of being locked up with his typically economical stroke of prose.
But much of the film's beauty belongs to Jenkins and to his crew, many of whom also worked on Moonlight. Jenkins' style is sensuous, from the color palette to the camera work to Nicholas Britell's hauntingly sparse score. In Jenkins' films, love comes with sadness and risk. It comes with a price, but it's worth the cost, even when one party is behind bars. In this sense, Beale Street would make a compelling pairing with one of the year's best novels, Tayari Jones' An American Marriage.
Jenkins connects this love back to Baldwin, who usually wrote from a place of love for his people even at his most critical. (His takedown of fellow author Richard Wright is among the most brutal in literature.) For all of Baldwin's prescience, it's through this more eternal quality that Jenkins thinks the author can teach us the most today. Ever skeptical, Baldwin was also a romantic at heart.
"Maybe it's a little soft-headed to say," Jenkins says, "but I think the idea that love, family and community, these very simple concrete things, can protect us and heal us from injustice, despite whatever horrors that come from society or the system."