Book review – “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin

A few weeks ago I blogged about the 2019 Oscars and identified If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the few literary connections amongst this year’s crop of nominees. It was in fact nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category but lost out to Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman on the night. The book is widely considered to be a classic of 20th century African-American writing.

It is a love story and concerns the relationship between 19 year-old Tish and her 22 year-old lover Fonny, whose baby she is expecting. The couple grew up in Harlem, but Fonny has ambitions of becoming a sculptor and the couple plan to move to Greenwich Village to be among other artists. The story of their love is told mainly through flashbacks, however, as, when the novel opens, Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for rape, having been accused and then identified in a line-up by the Peurto Rican victim.

if beale street could talk imgThe time span of the novel is the duration of Tish’s pregnancy, during which time the couple’s two families set about trying to free Fonny, liaising with his lawyer and pulling together all the money they can to pay Fonny’s legal costs. The lion’s share of this task falls to Tish’s family, who see it as their duty to support their daughter and the father of their grandchild. Fonny’s family, on the other hand is divided; his mother and sisters are deeply confused, ambivalent and disturbed by events effectively disown him. Fonny’s father does engage, supported by Tish’s father, but it is clear he is not really strong enough to cope with the pressure. It falls to Tish’s family to take charge and her mother, Sharon even goes to Peurto Rico, to where the raped woman has fled, to appeal to her to change her testimony, the suspicion being that Fonny was simply served up to her by corrupt police officers. As Tish’s pregnancy progresses, so we follow the legal machinations, the financial pressures faced by all concerned, the effect of prison on Fonny, the artistic soul tortured by his incarceration, and the toll that events take on both families.

It is a tragic story in many ways – no spoiler intended, but events don’t really resolve in the course of the novel – but has also been described as ultimately uplifting because it shows the power of love, not just between a man and a woman, but also within the community and within the family (notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of Fonny’s family, although the inference here is that his mother’s religious fervour lies at the root of this).  I have not seen the film so I’m not sure how it handles the open nature of the ending.

The other main theme of the novel is, of course, the black experience, and Baldwin was a key figure in mid-20th century civil rights activism in New York. He counted Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Marlon Brando, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis among his many high-profile friends. It is clear that Fonny has simply been set-up to take the blame for the rape – the woman identified her attacker only as black, and in the line-up that was assembled, Fonny was the only black man present. The cops are clearly out to get him, and any other black man. The judicial system, the penal system and the social and financial system are all stacked against Fonny, against them all, a reflection of how Baldwin saw society at the time.

Although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it a particularly easy read. The writing felt a little spiky, uncontrolled (the type that a determined editor might address!), but on the other hand it is spontaneous and vernacular, heart-felt and real. I found the timings difficult to follow at times and the supporting characters not as well-developed as I would have liked. It helps, however, when you understand more about Baldwin and his life. Firstly, he was an essayist, poet, playwright and activist as much as he was a novelist, if not more so, and whilst I do not know his other work, I can see that way of thinking in this novel. I think there are also significant influences from Baldwin’s personal life experience which feature strongly – his relationship with his father (actually his step-father), his sexuality, his struggle to express his art in his youth, growing up as he did in the tough neighbourhood of Harlem, and his religious ambivalence.

This is an intriguing and important book, even though it wasn’t always the easiest read. The love story is powerful and moving and it has certainly made me keen to see the film and to read more of Baldwin’s work, particularly his essays and his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Recommended.

Have you read the book or seen the film? What did you think?

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Are you ready for The Oscars?

Well, if you’re like me and based in the UK you probably won’t be staying up until the wee small hours awaiting the big announcements, especially as it’s a school night!

Books are more my thing than films, for sure, but I do love a good movie and going to the cinema remains a treat, even with all the alternative options we have today, such as DVDs, television subscription channels and live streaming. The UK Academy Awards (the BAFTAs) have got bigger over the years, but still don’t match the glitz and the prestige of the Oscars, even though scandals and mishaps have tarnished the image of the US awards ceremony in recent times.

if beale street could talk imgI’m always looking for the films with literary links and they are particularly scarce this year. If Beale Street Could Talk is the only novel-based film, that I could spot, and is based on the Harlem-set love story by James Baldwin, first published in 1974. I’ve just started reading it. The Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman and the comedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? are both based on memoirs, the former a true story of a young African-American detective who set out to infiltrate and bring down the KKK, and the latter, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant, also a memoir, about a celebrity biographer who finds herself out of work and changes tack to become a forger. This one also has a female director (too rare). I haven’t yet seen any of these films, but all of them appeal.

The three films above all have chances of winning big and have been nominated in a number of categories, but I note that in the Best Adapted Screenplay category the Coen brothers have a nomination for The Ballad of Buster Scraggs, a film based partly on short stories, written by the Coen brothers themselves. I don’t know much about this one and I don’t think it’s on general release yet in the UK.

Traditionally, when the Oscars come around, many of the films are fairly new to the UK, so audiences here may not have seen some of them, for example, The Wife, which has not yet reached the north of England. Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born seem to have been around forever. Neither really appeals to me, although friends who have seen them say both are great.

I have seen Roma, Vice and The Favourite and loved all three. Roma was probably the one I found most moving, although Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, manages to draw out the heartbreaking loneliness and isolation of the troubled monarch. Vice is just scary!

I don’t know enough about the film world to offer my top tips, but I will watch the highlights tomorrow with interest and hope that the script for the myriad presenters is less cringe-making than poor Joanna Lumley’s at the BAFTAs!

Which of the big Oscar-nominated movies have you seen and what are your favourites?

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