* Contains spoilers
US films The Farm: Angola, USA (1998), After Innocence (2005), The Central Park Five (2012), Kids for Cash (2013), and most recently Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), have explored the brutality of mass incarceration and the United States criminal justice system in both fiction and documentary. Unlike these, however, Barry Jenkins’ new Oscar-nominated adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), holds also to a steadfast commitment to being a story about young black love.
The film, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, portrays Clementine “Trish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her fiancé Alfonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) as the Romeo and Juliet of early ‘70s Harlem. Their commitment to each other defies the stars – and white supremacy in the United States – that align against them.
In this story, the ubiquity of white supremacy and sexual exploitation, rather than the tensions between Fonny and Trish’s family, cause the main afflictions for the lovers. One fateful night, after the love-struck pair finally finds a landlord willing to rent a flat to a young black couple, Fonny fights off an Italian-American man who sexually harasses Trish at a convenience store. In defending himself and his fiancé, Fonny attracts the attention of a racist policeman, Officer Bell, who is eager to haul Fonny to jail for assault. Enraged that he does not win the support of witnesses, Bell later avenges himself by framing Fonny for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Bell’s perverted anger against Fonny, his lust for Trish and his manipulation of the victim’s memory of her own rape, stand in stark contrast to the purity of love and warmth between Trish and Fonny – and the kindness among the small community of people who work hard to save the couple from the heartlessness of New York City’s criminal justice system.
After the riots of the mid to late ‘60s, Harlem was emblematic of both the city’s vibrancy and its decay. Despite persistent calls for community programmes rather than imprisonment, a “tough on crime” rhetoric led to a massive rise of the United States’ prison population during the ‘70s, focusing heavily on New York City (see Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration by Devah Pager). According to reporter German Lopez, “In response to a tide of higher crime over the preceding decade, state and federal lawmakers passed measures that increased the length of prison sentences for all sorts of crimes, from drugs to murder.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the incarcerated population has increased by 700 per cent since the 1970s, with black men imprisoned six times the rate of white men, and the incarcerated population of black women double that of white women.
Explicit allusion to this historical context is largely absent from Jenkins’ Beale Street, which chooses instead to celebrate the beauty of romantic and familial love. Yet this exploration of young love, rather than a more direct documentation of crime and imprisonment policies, is in line with Baldwin’s own priorities; he dismisses “protest” novels, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Richard Wright’s Native Son, as pamphlets rather than literature. In his 1949 essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel, he writes, “[T]he avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility.” The protest novel, overly simplistic, moralistic and sentimental, he writes, becomes “an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene” because it dedicates to its cause, not to the complexity of the human experience.
It is no surprise that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Beale Street is, similarly, not like other films about mass incarceration, as it focuses even more on the love theme than Baldwin perhaps intended. Unlike the film, Baldwin’s novel explores the ugliness and psychological ramifications of the United States’ justice system through Fonny’s desires, desperation and “stink” – down to the graphic stickiness of his unwashed body and his bodily fluids when he is in jail. The film erases the novel’s examination of Fonny’s own family and the tragedy of his father’s life, and even excises the vulnerability of Fonny’s childhood friend and ex-con Daniel, with whom Fonny reconnects before he is wrongfully imprisoned. Daniel, framed for car theft, recounts to Fonny and Tish the wretched stench, shit and sickness that surrounded him when he was first incarcerated, and painfully opens up about the trauma of seeing men raped and being raped himself.
The film shies away from these images of abjection, and indeed evokes the nostalgic beauty of its ‘70s Harlem setting. It focuses primarily on the depth of Trish and Fonny’s love, the gentleness with which they hold each other and the ease in which they look into each other’s eyes. From Trish’s parents, Sharon and Joseph (played by Regina King and Colman Domingo respectively), they inherit an enviable ability to rise above the trauma of the mass incarceration, poverty and violence that surrounds them.
A central message about mass imprisonment only emerges towards the end of the film through a short historical montage showing black men being arrested and detained – the briefness of which may seem to weaken the film’s political ambitions. However, the film’s preservation of the poetic beauty of Harlem, and of Trish and Fonny, succeed in presenting the image of a people who find a way even in a dead end – a people whose love remains undeterred by the forces that threaten to tear them down and rip them apart.
Photo: If Beale Street Could Talk