BASED ON: Life on the Cross in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), based on a James Baldwin novel of the same title. (Warning: rated R. Even more graphic content in the novel.)

The works of James Baldwin have seen a resurgence in recent years. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary told solely through the words of Baldwin: his essays, interviews, lectures and other non-fiction works. Both the film and the primary sources pack a great deal of political power.

I was unaware of his fictional writings until the release of the critically claimed and awards nominated film, If Beale Street Could Talk. Upon reading the book, I realized the story was unique in that it was essentially a story devoid of a structure. By non-structure, I mean that it did not follow typical Western literature rules such as act structure and character arcs.

In the briefest of summaries, the first half of the book deals with a young African-American couple falling in love … much to the chagrin of the young man’s devout mother. What follows is a graphic description of the consummation of that lust. The second half of the novel commences after a corrupt policeman frames the young man for a sexual assault. The families attempt to exact some justice, hiring a well-intentioned lawyer, and going so far as taking an out-of-country trip to find the alleged female victim, but they’re ultimately trapped in limbo. The young woman and her son long for a husband and father unjustly separated from them. A third act never materializes.

A novelist, essayist, activist and playwright, Baldwin’s words posses more of a stark and objective reality. Barry Jenkins’ big screen adaptation provides more artful fine strokes. His cinematography captures some of the more beautiful compositions in a film from last year. The principal characters, after all are themselves beautiful. Even in the prison scenes that conclude the film, the young man is shown weary, but his good looks are retained, only assuming a more rugged quality.

The editing as well, reinforces the non-story structure. The incident of police corruption and brutality fractures the two families’ worlds. The resulting non-linear flashback style, then serves its dramatic purpose. Jenkins improves upon the Baldwin work, a novel written almost exclusively in temporal order.

Thematically, the book and film achieve their greatest feat. Beale Street avoids the path (pun intended) that another period film, The Favourite, unfortunately takes. Even if ahistorical, the three female characters in The Favourite behave badly in their ruling of Great Britain, given license, I suppose because men did the same in the dynasties prior. Women acting like men, I would venture, hardly constitutes a feminist story ,as nothing really pertaining to womanhood is depicted.

Jenkins’ story and its underlying lack of traditional structure however, capture the minority experience of America. In many cases, the director posits, African-Americans are deprived the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The key lies in the title, Beale Street, a familiar cultural marker in the black community. Jenkins phrases the title as a question: “If” blacks didn’t have the system rigged against them, maybe the “talking” of the stories could display complete, three-act, happily-ever-afters.

Alas, for now, it seems such stories will remain akin to something a wise priest once told me in seminary. Especially, in the developing world, some people don’t experience a resurrection in this lifetime. They’re born suffering and die in suffering. Perhaps, too with Jenkins’ sobering film, we see a  birth of the two-act structure: stories that begin and end on the cross.

Image: Annapurna Pictures

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