James Baldwin's 'Beale Street' Is Talking Louder Than Ever
When ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ appeared in 1974, a then-16-year-old Ben Fountain wondered if its tragic portrayal of race in the U.S. was true. Time has supplied the answer.
If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie directed by Barry Jenkins, opens in limited release December 14. The novel of the same name by James Baldwin and on which the movie is based was published in June 1974. It tells the story of Tish and Fonny, two very young (she’s 19, he’s 22) African-Americans in New York City who are in love, engaged to be married, then find the fragile trajectory of their lives thrown off by Fonny’s arrest for a rape he did not commit. The perpetrator of the arrest—of the entire maddening injustice of Fonny’s incarceration—is one Officer Bell, a blue-eyed, red-haired New York City cop who, for no good reason, has it in for Fonny.
Beale Street is a tragedy, not without hope at the end, but a tragedy nevertheless. “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride,” is a saying you hear among lawyers of the criminal defense bar, and the ordeal that Tish, Fonny, and their families endure is a very harsh ride indeed.
The same summer that Beale Street was published, I read it far from New York, in a quiet, leafy suburb of what was called in those days “the New South,” and the news that book brought me might as well have come from another planet. I was 16, white, middle class, and had spent exactly one night of my life in New York, at a Holiday Inn. The world Baldwin depicts, a world in which the racist animus of a white policeman could so randomly, lethally be brought to bear on one particular black man, rocked my 16-year-old self back on his heels.
The shock wasn’t that such things happened; I’d learned enough history, local and otherwise, to know better than that. It was, rather, news of a world in which this potentially lethal animus is the universal condition of African-Americans, males especially.
We are told via Hayward, the white lawyer handling Fonny’s defense, that Officer Bell is “a racist and a liar,” that in fact Bell murdered a 12-year-old black boy two years earlier. Trish and Fonny’s downtown landlord, Levy, warns them to “watch out for the cops. They’re murder.” Later in the novel, Trish muses that if her father had had sons, they’d most likely be dead by now. And there’s Fonny’s friend Daniel, broken by two years in prison for a bogus grand larceny charge, and, looming over everyone, “the obscene power and ferocious enmity of the D.A.’s office.”
I did have a few clues about race in America, growing up as I was in the jittery South of civil rights and desegregation. It’s not that I disbelieved Baldwin’s novel so much as I suspended belief, wondering if he’d exaggerated the story to make a political point, or meant to punish his white readers with an especially grim parable of black life. Beale Street left me dangling amid possibilities, one being the potentially vast scale of my own ignorance.
You could say I remained in this state of suspension for years. Baldwin’s book would return to me when the video of Rodney King’s beating first aired, and again when the racist history of the LAPD was described—entered into the record—during the O.J. Simpson trial. And again, many times over, in recent years, with each new video recording of the last moments of one of my fellow citizens. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Oscar Grant III. Samuel Dubose. Laquan McDonald. Alton Sterling. Terence Crutcher. With each death I found myself in a kind of communion with my 16-year-old self and Baldwin’s novel, and the dreadful truth of America for people of color. Here’s your answer, I’d say to that 16-year-old self, your proof. Baldwin was writing nothing short of hardcore realism in If Beale Street Could Talk, and it’s as real now as it’s ever been. We have proof, for anyone still in suspense.