“BLACK HISTORY – TALKIN’ BEALE STREET”
I want to begin Black History Month with a bit of white history – mine. What else is new? A white man seeking to take over something else! This comes in my reflections on seeing the powerful movie “If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), based on the James Baldwin novel of 1974, based on black life in Harlem in the 1970’s. Both the movie and the book focus on the loving relationship between a 22 year old man named Fonny and a nineteen year old woman named Tish, as they fall in love, move in together, get pregnant and have a baby. In the middle of this comes the powerful force of race, most especially seen in Fonny being falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.
I have seen the movie twice, once with our daughter over Christmas and once with 92 year old friend Christine Callier. Her white grandfather “had relations” with Christine’s black grandmother in south Georgia, and Christine was one of the results of that union. I read the book back in the 1980’s, but I had largely forgotten its plot. When I saw the movie the first time, I kept waiting for the violence, and by “violence” I mean “black violence.” Over these 44 years since the novel was written, my white psyche had been conditioned to expect black violence, even though the vast majority of violence in race relations is white on black, including that which was done to Christine’s grandmother. So, I noticed that in myself in my first viewing of the movie. I missed a lot of the dynamics of the movie because I was bracing myself for the violence that I knew was coming. It never came in the way that I had feared.
In my second viewing of the movie, I was struck by many scenes, but I noticed one where my racism came roaring through. Early on in the movie, Tish gathered to tell her family that she was pregnant. They were in the Rivers’ family home, and the director had a direct-on camera shot of her dad, Mr. Rivers, at the dinner table. My first thought was that I hated to see it when he would be violent towards her for getting pregnant. As the camera focused on his face, I noticed how my racism led me to think that because he was a black man, he would be violent.
He never was violent towards her or anyone else. Indeed, he was quite loving and supportive of her. This emphasis on the humanity of black men was one of the powerful parts of the movie in both of my viewings of it. The black men in the movie had many dimensions to them – they were human beings. One form of violence in the movie came from “religious” mother-in-law of Fonny, whose language and bitterness boiled over into domestic violence – the church comes through again!
The other violence that we saw in the movie came from where it usually originates in America – from the white police officer who harassed both Tish and Fonny and who finally arrests Fonny for the rape. We do not see the rape, so neither the movie nor I seem to know which racial category the rapist fits. Fonny is ground through the white criminal injustice system, and in his prescience, Baldwin shows how the white system will respond to the gains of the civil rights movement. As Michelle Alexander and others have documented, the criminal injustice system became the hub of a desire to form a “new Jim Crow,” or as I prefer it, a new “neo-slavery system.”
I urge everyone to see this movie, and I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends. I will tell you that the movie is a stunning testimony to the enduring power of love in the midst of death. This is one of Baldwin’s continuing themes in his artistic works. I will also tell you that if you are classified as “white,” you will be invited to consider the continuing power of race in all of our lives in America. Beale Street is the birthplace of every person classified as “black” in America, and it is where Black Jesus was also born.