If Beale Street Could Talk is not an outstanding film, but it is a good one. Based on a novel by the same name, by one of America’s greatest writers, James Baldwin, this movie tells the story of 2 young black lovers from Harlem, Fonny and Tish. Fonny is falsely accused of rape and is placed in jail without bail very early on in the film. Tish is only 19 and is already pregnant when Fonny is put in jail. Tish’s family hires a white lawyer to defend him and her mother tries to get evidence that would support Fonny’s case.
The root of the film is love–parental and romantic. It is love that drives the film and floods it with warmth. The love between Trish and Fonny is palpable, as is the love between Trish’s family and the couple. The love from Fonny’s family, except for the father, is pretty thin gruel, diluted as it is by religion. Fonny’s family evoked a familiar Baldwin theme–how racism frequently turned its victims, especially black men, into self-hating monsters that lash out at the only ones they could–i.e. their own families. Black people too often attack the ones they love the most because they are incapable of attacking those who oppress them. Warmth from family is desperately needed to hold back the cold of prison and the American “justice” system. That system is the background for the film, and it is not a pretty one. For the sad fact is that the criminal justice system is not a just one for black Americans.
Trish makes a telling remark early in the film. She says, “We were told we weren’t worth shit, and looking around us we saw the proof that it was true.” The reality of the American criminal justice system is that starting around the time that the book on which the film was based, mass incarceration as a result of ‘law and order’ politics was beginning to fill American jails, primarily with black men. In recent years in America 65% of convictions are against blacks who only make up 20% of the population.
Last year while we were in Arizona Chris and I heard a talk with Cornell West who rages against this system. I heard him say on the radio one time, “If you don’t speak out against such injustice the rocks are going to cry out.” He also pointed out that “Every 28 hours for the last 7 years a black or brown man, woman, or child in America was murdered by the police or private security guard services. And the reason West said was because black lives are devalued. Black lives don’t matter. That was even though a black President led America at the time.
One of the real values of this film, is that it puts such facts in your face. This is particularly brought home during the family meeting between Fonny, Trish, and their young son in prison. Prison is the background to their “family life.” The couple lives in a toxic atmosphere of racial suppression. That was what life was like in America at the time. How much has it really changed?
The movie offered no facile solutions. I appreciated that. Such “solutions” would not have been honest. Fonny was in jail at the beginning of the film and he was still there when his young son came to visit him there with his mother.
The movie showed some “good whites” like the woman storekeeper who tried to defend Fonny and the Jewish landlord who was kind.
Yet Fonny’s friend, another young black man, asked if Malcolm X was right when he rhetorically asked if the white man was the devil? Fonny’s friend after describing briefly his woes in prison commented, “The white man sure does hate niggers.” I would apologize for using this word, but it was used in the movie. Scrubbing it would not be honest. That is also the way young black men would talk at that time in that situation.
Are such uncomfortable question like this not entirely appropriate when more than half of black men without a college education go to prison at some time in their lives? Or when you consider that there are more black men in American prisons than there were enslaved during the height of slavery? In America black lives often don’t matter, at least to whites. In America, as in Canada, racism still lies at its core. Until it is expunged and redeemed there is no hope for either country.