BHM2019: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk – Baldwin’s Poetry On Screen

For Black History Month we asked students to recommend works by Black writers that are important to them. All recommendations will be acquired by ILS and included in a dedicated exhibition in Fountains. Kicking us off, Adam Kirkbride reflects on the recent adaptation of James Badlwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk

By Adam Kirkbride

When I decided to watch Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, I didn’t know what to expect. What I can be sure of, however, is that I never could have anticipated just how captivating the film would be from its very beginning.  

Image result for if beale street could talk

The film opened on Baldwin’s poetic description of the titular location, in which he emphasises that “Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.” As if Baldwin’s words were come to life, the sounds of busy life slowly emerged over the text. From the constant noise, Nicholas Britell’s swelling score rose, and the scene opened on an aerial view of a couple, walking hand-in-hand along a secluded pavement. The camera followed the couple from above, and eventually cut down to a close, intimate shot of our protagonist, Tish (played by the amazing Kiki Layne), and her partner, Fonny (Stephan James). In this moment, which seemed to stretch from eternity to eternity, there was nothing other than this couple and the love that they share. When Tish asked her lover “You ready for this?” her voice felt like part of the score, part of the magical noise of Beale Street, and I found myself taking a deep breath, preparing myself for whatever “this” was. Jenkins had stolen my heart within moments, and although the scene barely made up two minutes of screen time, I could have lived in that moment for ever. 

From there onwards, the film only becomes more and more affective, and I could easily write page after page after page of praise for this piece of art. It is impossible to go through the film without a lump being perpetually in your throat. The audience is firmly grounded in Tish’s perspective, and we feel the pain that she feels as she watches the man she loves, the father of her child, be persecuted for a crime that he did not commit. In the narrative of the present, we follow it with dedication, relentlessly hoping that justice will prevail. When the film flashes back to the beginning of the central couple’s relationship, we cannot help but fall in love with them both. This is the magic of Jenkins’ film, and the poetry of Baldwin’s prose, uniting to create something which demands attention and acclaim.  

This film portrays issues of racial injustice like no otherAs a white man, I can’t accurately write about what life is like for a person of colour, and that is why the film impacted me in such a powerful manner. This film allowed me to experience the smallest degree of the pain, fear, and anger that Tish felt, in a way unlike any other. Literature is meant to inspire us, to move us, and to help us learn what we cannot learn from experience. If Beale Street Could Talk does this flawlessly, and that is why it is beautiful. 

If you would like to share your BHM2019 recommendations, please email or tweet us using @YSJLit