A notable contender this awards season, Barry Jenkins’s film If Beale Street Could Talk is an exquisite adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about black intimacy against the backdrop of white racism. The movie also offers viewers a chance to reflect on the work of an author who is as indispensable today as he was in his own lifetime. Baldwin’s literary career spanned four decades, from 1947 to 1987—a time when the United States witnessed many seismic political and cultural shifts, and during which Baldwin’s own artistic vision evolved. If Beale Street Could Talk, which was published in 1974 and follows a young black couple whose lives are torn apart by a false criminal accusation, is a harbinger of Baldwin’s late style. In particular, the novel marked a crucial turn in how the author sought to characterize the most abiding theme and moral principle of his work: love.
If Beale Street Could Talk received mixed reviews on publication. Some praised it for its delicate mix of romance and protest fiction, while others criticized the authenticity of the narrator’s voice. But what’s clear in retrospect is how Baldwin articulates his vision of love from within black life, as the novel centers on the emotional bonds holding two African American families together. By contrast, the author had spent the previous decade instead writing and thinking about love as a collective American experience, one whose power came from the fact that it could cut across racial lines.
Americans’ idea of Baldwin is often limited to this decade—the 1960s—perhaps because no other U.S. writer embodies that period better than he does. Although he had published an impressive set of works in the ’50s, it was the release of the novel Another Country (1962) and the two essays that make up The Fire Next Time (1963) that solidified his reputation as one of America’s preeminent writers and public intellectuals. In these civil-rights-era works, Baldwin was keen on interrogating white power and championing love to realize the full promise of America.
Of Baldwin’s writings from this period, The Fire Next Time is the most representative. It offers his most trenchant critique of white supremacy—how it is contingent on black subjugation, and how that asymmetry totally warps the people, institutions, and moral character of the United States. More specifically, Baldwin identified a feeling he called “innocence” to be a constituent feature of white supremacy. As he put it, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” To author devastation—that is, to enslave, maim, lynch, and disenfranchise a group of people—entails one type of power. And, as Baldwin delineated, it takes yet another kind to disavow those violent acts.
Innocence, Baldwin argued, masks America’s violent racial past and present record, enabling white Americans to shirk responsibility and to reproduce an idea of themselves and of the United States based on the republic’s noble ideals rather than its ignoble history. Baldwin believed that no substantive racial progress, and no fundamental transformation of the nation, could be achieved so long as innocence remained the organizing feeling of American whiteness. This is why he had championed love as a countervailing feeling. In fact, he believed it to be the only remaining force powerful enough to free whiteness from its arrested state of innocence, concluding, “If love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.”
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin identifies three key ways for love to remake the country at a decisive time in its history. First, Baldwin saw black love as one crucial vehicle for white redemption. Addressing his 14-year-old nephew, and by extension a black collective, he writes:
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope.
Baldwin attacks the assumption of an American keyword such as integration, which in 1963 widely meant the acceptance of African Americans by white people, institutions, and standards. Instead, he inverts that logic and insists that it’s African Americans who have to accept their white counterparts and change U.S. institutions and norms on black terms. Writing two years before the end of legal segregation, Baldwin demands black people not only to accept whites, but to do so with love, positioning black love as a vital instrument for white liberation and interracial renewal on a national scale.
Second, Baldwin considered America’s racial problem a symptom of white lovelessness. He wrote: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” This loaded statement conveys again Baldwin’s belief in the personal and political uses of love, as he identifies white self-acceptance as the very condition for resolving America’s racial ordeal. For Baldwin, a white identity based on these self-affirming principles, rather than on supremacist power and innocence, wouldn’t require a racial “other” against whom to measure and define self-worth.
And, third, Baldwin conjured up interracial love as a national ideal. His penultimate sentence in The Fire Next Time is an oft-quoted line: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” An American vanguard epitomized by interracial lovers was certainly evocative and provocative in 1963, when de jure segregation and anti-miscegenation still reigned. It underscored the risk, effort, and intimacy that were needed to transform the nation while providing a model of mutual self-transformation that might accomplish such a difficult endeavor.
We see these different applications of love writ large in Baldwin’s other civil-rights-era writings. White innocence and lovelessness sit at the heart of the author’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), and the difficulties of interracial love in his third novel, Another Country. There is a significant shift, however, in Baldwin’s later writings, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, in which erotic love between black people assumes great import.
Beale Street is the first Baldwin novel to focus exclusively on a black love story; it is also the only novel in his corpus narrated by a woman. The work revolves around the relationship between the 19-year-old Tish and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Fonny. At the outset of the book, Tish finds out she is pregnant soon after Fonny is sent to prison on a trumped-up rape charge. Told in the first person by Tish, the story follows her pregnancy and the arduous attempt to get Fonny released from prison. And, through a series of flashbacks, it recounts how the two lovebirds (and their families) have been linked since early childhood. While If Beale Street Could Talk is a prescient narrative about the American carceral state, the story line of systematic racism doesn’t overshadow the tale of the young black couple and their families.
One important reason for this shift toward black love is that Beale Street was published at the tail end of the Black Arts Movement. One of the great achievements of the movement, in addition to creating black cultural institutions—including magazines, journals, and publishing houses that were committed to raising black consciousness—is the way it tilted readers’ attention toward the intra-racial dimensions of black life. This subject had been largely eclipsed by the interracial, white-black antagonism that informed much of black literature up to that point. Authors such as Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, and several other major architects of the movement also placed the particular experiences of black women center stage.
Foregrounding the intersection of gender and race within black life opened up a new way of portraying black interior and social worlds untethered to whiteness. In Baldwin’s own work, readers see how displacing the racial binary opens up a space for him to focus on black intimacy and interiority in If Beale Street Could Talk, as well as in publications that succeeded it. For instance, Just Above My Head (1979), arguably Baldwin’s finest novel, offers a powerful characterization of black gay love and also the author’s most successfully realized black female character.
In the film version of Beale Street, Barry Jenkins does a brilliant job of translating Baldwin’s novel for the big screen, with a captivating and painterly adaptation of the plot as well as a voice-over narrative that gives fidelity to Tish’s first-person perspective. But beyond that, Jenkins has also introduced viewers to a Baldwin work that sits outside the parameters of the civil-rights era, where many people’s ideas of the writer are stuck. Instead, the director has drawn on a work that expresses a new prerogative of love that Baldwin readers seldom encounter, as well as a vision of black desire that audiences rarely glimpse in movie theaters. In his last published essay, “To Crush a Serpent,” Baldwin wrote, “Complexity is our only safety and love is the only key to our maturity.” In a country that remains in many ways emotionally infantile, and where simplemindedness can be deemed a sign of strength, Baldwin’s fierce imagination remains an invaluable resource and provides a blueprint for America’s collective welfare.