“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”
In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”
An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.
By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.
In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.
However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.
Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.
In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.
In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.
Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.
Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”
Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.
Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.
OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”
Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.
We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.
Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”
Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.
Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?
The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.
If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.