One of the most underappreciated films at the 91st Academy Awards was Barry Jenkins’ adaption of If Beale Street Could Talk. It was nominated a measly 3 times in total. To put that in context, the boring remake of A Star is Born got 8. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody both got 5. That’s fucking insane. Even more insane is the fact that it only won 1 of those 3. Maybe the Academy thought that they’d done Barry Jenkins enough of a favour when they gave Moonlight the award for Best Picture? Or maybe they just thought that they’d done enough to fight racism that year by giving fucking Green Book so much recognition? Whatever it was, it was a travesty. I loved the film though and, once I’d started to compile my anti-racist reading list, I knew that I had to read the original book. So, I started it this weekend and finished it just in time for this review.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the only novel written by James Baldwin that is narrated by a woman. It is a love story that focuses on the lives of Clementine, known as Tish, and Alonzo, known as Fonny. He is 22-years-old and she is 19. The pair are happily engaged and preparing for the birth of the first child. The only problem is, Fonny is locked up for a crime that he didn’t commit. A young woman has accused him of rape even though Fonny was with Tish and their friend Daniel at the time It is clear that the police investigation did everything possible to get Fonny convicted but it’s proving more difficult to prove it to the people who matter. Tish is supported by her parents, Joseph and Sharon, her sister, Ernestine, and Fonny’s father, Frank. With a white lawyer working to get Fonny released, can his loved ones do what they need to help?
If Beale Street Could Talk is a sentimental love story that is told from Tish’s point of view. We learn about her relationship with Fonny, her family, and her growing baby. The story ends up being quite sentimental but it provides a different perspective to the story of a young Black man falling prey to the police. We get to see how Fonny’s imprisonment impacts the people on the outside and how far they will go to get him out. The novel is intended to showcase the human side and to show the strong family bonds that exist. Of course, it is still an angry novel and there is the same energy and passion that you would expect from James Baldwin. It’s just woven into the emotional love story of two doomed young people.
If I’m being super critical, I think there are moments when the sentimental side maybe distracts a bit from the social commentary here but, ultimately, it works. Some beautiful moments see Tish describe the love she and Fonny share. This is an intimate story and you become invested in these characters. You can’t help but be won over by the couple. Of course, it’s the kind of over-the-top young love that is reminiscent of something like Romeo and Juliet but that only makes the overall narrative all the more tragic. Through Tish’s eyes, we see Fonny’s optimism being dashed by a racist cop. We see a young man with plenty of potential become another statistic lost in the system. However, Baldwin ends the novel with a dash of hope. We get the idea that, despite not being given a definitive outcome, there is still plenty of life left for Fonny.
After all, the whole novel shows the importance of family and the love that exists between certain types of family. Tish’s family are the kind of people who would do anything for each other. They put all of their efforts into helping Tish and Fonny. It is the kind of familial love that will accept anything and give anything. Tish’s family contrasts dramatically with Fonny’s. His father is an angry drunk who takes his frustrations out on his wife and daughters. His mother and sisters are religious and consider themselves to be better than everyone else. It is only Frank who stands by his son even though Tish’s whole family never doubt the boy. The novel highlights the love not only between family members but between a community of people. Fonny is part of Tish’s family and they all love each other. Fonny and Tish embrace their friend Daniel and support him through a tough time. If Beale Street Could Talk sets out to contrast the idea that the media often tries to push that Black communities are just full of violent and hopeless people.
Is this the best James Baldwin novel out there? Probably not, but that is only because he’s so talented. I think this lacks some of the lyrical language and punch that he is so known for. That’s not to say If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t a great novel. It offers a frank and honest look into the life of a Black family during the 70s. The novel is still unmistakably Baldwin and beautiful. It’s really well-written and definitely worth a read.