Why James Baldwin Would Love Barry Jenkins’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point at it: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.” — James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 1975
I wonder what James Baldwin would say if he were here for the film debut of his novel If Beale Street Could Talk.
Would Baldwin be happy to find Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at the helm of his first English-language film adaptation? I think so.
But I also think he would be surprised to see one of his tales told on the big screen. His work is all about the subtle intimacies of human life. “Film is not the best medium for interiority,” Jenkins told Deadline, “and Baldwin’s stock-in-trade was the interior life of human beings. It is not an easy thing to translate. It is not an easy thing to adapt.”
Baldwin was actually a huge cinephile. He captured his passion for the movies in his powerful book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, published in 1975. In it, he reveals how the images we see onscreen both carry the weight of American history and reflect an idealized version of who we are. He knows fantasy is what drives American cinema, but as a black man, he is not at liberty to trust it. “A black man, in any case, had certainly best not believe everything he sees in the movies,” he writes.
One of my favorite reviews of his is about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), starring Sidney Poiter and Katherine Hepburn, in which he laments the gloss of the film’s interracial relations. (“We can conclude that people have the right to marry whom they choose, especially if we know that they are leaving town as soon as dinner is over,” Baldwin snaps.) He also touches on Birth of a Nation, In the Heat of the Night, and Lady Sings the Blues. (If you love cinema, read this essay!)
But his most personal experience with film came while adapting The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the silver screen. In 1968, Baldwin clashed with studio executives who wanted to victimize Malcolm as having been “mistreated, early by some whites, and betrayed (later) by many blacks.” Baldwin describes the scene he created for the moment Malcolm meets West Indian Archie at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. “The interior evidence of Malcolm’s book very strongly suggests a kind of father-son relationship between Archie and Malcolm,” he writes, and he delivers a scene that quietly conveys the reflection Archie sees of himself in Malcolm as he stumbles into Small’s. When Baldwin receives the draft back from the studio, the scene has been turned, instead, into a shoot-out and a stand-off between Archie and Malcolm—all of his subtlety has been removed.
Baldwin was appalled:
“We are to believe, then, on the basis of the ‘translated’ scene, that a group of seasoned hustlers, in a very hip Harlem bar, allow a child from the country whom nobody knows to precipitate a crisis which may bring the heat down on everybody, and in which the child, by no means incidentally, may lose his life—while they take bets. West Indian Archie is so angry that a child stepped on his shoes that he forgets he has all that numbers money on him, and all those people waiting to be paid—both above and below the line. And, furthermore, this was not at all what Archie saw in Malcolm, nor was it what I wanted the audience to see.”
Baldwin ceased his working relationship with the studio, and, as we know, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was not successfully adapted for screen until 25 years later, by Spike Lee. He seemed to have a bitterness toward his experience, explaining, “The only way to translate the written word to the cinema involves doing considerable violence to the written word, to the extent, indeed, of forgetting the written word.”
But this did not change his attitude toward cinema, he loved it just the same.
As a fan of Baldwin, I trust Jenkins with his material and I believe Baldwin would, too. Jenkins uses his lens to communicate an authenticity of experience for different types of black people in different types of life. Before Moonlight (2016), Jenkins created one of my favorite movies, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), about two 20somethings living in San Francisco, navigating the stereotypes and expectations placed on them as two “flies in the buttermilk,” as Baldwin would say. In anticipation of Beale Street, The New York Times posted an oral history of Medicine last week, in which Jenkins recounts his motivation for telling the story:
“I’d seen all of these white guys making mumblecore movies with no budget and getting them into South by Southwest. It almost seemed like only the lives of 20something white kids were deemed to be interesting, and like our lives were not as interesting or on the same wavelength. I was like, ‘No, that’s bull—in my experience, there are black people in these scenes, too.’”
Baldwin’s material also shines a light on the simplicities and joys and fears of being a person who is black and who is alive in America. If there’s anyone who can translate his quiet complexities for the big screen, it’s Jenkins.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select theaters Friday, December 14, 2018.