72. James Baldwin: Rich tapestry of black life is also a stinging indictment

Business Day
12 March 2019

Professor Adeyeke Adebajo

As the controversy rages in South Africa about Pastor Alph Lukau’s recent “resurrection” of a “dead” man, the more important contemporary resurrection has been that of African-American writer, James Baldwin’s works with the film of his 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, which is still in South African cinemas.

Baldwin, who died in French exile at the age of 63 in 1987, was undoubtedly one of the towering figures of American letters in the twentieth century. He was also a civil rights activist and public intellectual who published six novels, nine collections of essays, two plays, and a book of poetry. His important work, however, seems to have been largely forgotten.

African-American director Barry Jenkins – whose Moonlight won the Oscar for best movie in 2017 – directed Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, with the screenplay sticking faithfully to the novelist’s rich dialogue. The cinematography is stunning, with intimate close-ups and narrative flashbacks. The sultry jazz rhythms of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and John Coltrane add a profound sense of pathos to the film.

Set in New York’s Harlem in the 1970s, the movie centres on the romantic relationship between a young couple: Fonny a woodwork sculptor, and Tish, who sells perfume in a department store. Their love is tested when Fonny is jailed for a rape he did not commit. Tish discovers she is pregnant, and is able to rely on a resilient family anchored by her indomitable, stoic mother – played with steely grace by Regina Bell, who won an Oscar for her role. The pregnancy, however, leads to tensions with Tish’s in-laws. The family of the young couple ultimately collaborate to keep the “tribe” together.

The film starts by quoting Baldwin stating that: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street.” Beale Street is a metaphor for any black community in which black people gather to joke, cry, and reminisce. Baldwin consistently insisted on a nuanced description of the splendid tapestry of black life. This is a story about working-class black people who are often invisible to white society. Issues around the racist American criminal justice system – and how it impacts the lives of blacks – are examined with the unflinching, uncompromising, searing anger characteristic of Baldwin’s work.

The helplessness, frustration, and resignation of black people at being unable to fight a repressive system of injustice is palpable. This is a film filled with melancholy and hopelessness. The young couple struggle to find landlords who will rent apartments to them, and end up in a converted warehouse. Injustice against black citizens is ubiquitous, as Fonny’s close friend, Danny, was jailed for two years after being falsely accused of stealing a car, though he could not drive. Danny had confessed to the crime to avoid a more severe charge for marijuana possession.

Fonny is still in jail when the film ends with a visit by his wife and young son. This is not classic Hollywood escapism. True to Baldwin’s deep pessimism, there is no happy fairy-tale ending. The enduring message is the writer’s stinging indictment of the strange persistence of racism in America. However, the resilience of the black community in the face of such adversity also comes through as a glimmer of hope. This film is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit.

If Beale Street Could Talk exposes the persistent failure of the majority of white America to acknowledge the continuing injustices in their society that Baldwin wrote about with such ferocity. Many whites – even in “liberal” New York – have often voted for draconian policies on crime prevention, championed also by supposedly “liberal” politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. These policies have incarcerated young blacks and Latinos in what African-American scholar-activist, Angela Davis, described as a “prison-industrial complex” consisting of one million black prisoners out of a 2.3 million prison population.

As long as America’s streets are safer, most whites have not really cared if the keys to these jails are thrown away forever. Baldwin is a Cassandra whose prophetic insights were not heeded in his day. However, the American criminal justice system has, in fact, now fulfilled the writer’s worst expectations, as new forms of slavery are devised and police brutality against unarmed blacks – resulting in fatal shootings – continues unabated.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.