It’s a unique thing that James Baldwin was able to do and that Barry Jenkins was able to pull off in terms of having you feel broken yet so full at the same time by the end of the film. — Stephan James.
This quote from the male lead of If Beale Street Could Talk helped me understand my own feelings after leaving this film. Beale Street is based on a novel by James Baldwin and is a love story that happens in the context of racism in New York City. The protagonists are a young couple who grow up together, fall in love and have a child together. The pregnancy occurs while the young man is falsely accused of rape and awaits trial in prison. During the film we see flashbacks to their childhood, their growing relationship, the struggles within their families, and their own struggles to find work and a place to live while planning a life together. The man’s arrest and imprisonment and the efforts to free him are, however, the major narrative. As I watched I wondered how it would all end. Would there be a Hollywood ending with him being freed and justice achieved? Would he die in prison from suicide or murder? Would he become hardened by his experience and become something his lover could no longer love? In the end none of these happen but somehow I did not leave the film depressed but certainly angry at what happened to them and at the same time hopeful and relieved at the ability of some people at least to overcome or rather, live with injustice because of what they share with one another. Not sure if that will explain the film or not but James’ quote was very helpful to me in resolving how I felt.
The film is worthy of the praise it has received. The acting is OSCAR worthy and the cinematography and writing of equal quality. I read some of James Baldwin in university but was, I think, too young to appreciate its importance. My first recent re-introduction was to Baldwin was the excellent documentary about his life and contributions – I Am Not Your Negro, which I will re-watch soon and I encourage everyone to see. If you go to see this film, and I recommend you do, it will help you come to understand how victims of racism survive the context within which they are living. The experience of living within a racist society is something that can be hard to understand particularly for those of us who have grown up as part of the white middle class. Baldwin and Jenkins have told a story that reaches across that divide and educates without pulling punches but also without anger or hate and with great power. An excellent film.