Oh, the stories to tell.
We talk diversity – and have been, off and on, for a couple of decades now – but we’re still unsure what we truly mean when we utter the word. Are we talking about presence or active engagement? And on what level – societal, national, communal, intra-communal?
James Baldwin, the quintessential writer of the black experience during the Civil Rights Era, offered a harsh view at times, difficult for those outside the community of black folks he loved, but for those within that communal embrace, there was pure romance. A love of and for self, the selves not seen or heard in rich symphonic glory.
Of course, it should be noted that his love also came with an equal share of questioning fury, a desire to poke and prod ourselves and our counterparts in this fragile American experiment to do the right thing or face the consequences.
Barry Jenkins, the filmmaker who in this moment has taken it upon himself to offer up rich visualizations of the black experience, longs for everyone to feel that black love. The warmth black folks don’t always get to share with one another, the glow that white folks still can’t quite seem to see. The invisibility of Ralph Ellison now a chronic blindness of the sort that José Saramago called “white blindness” in his 1998 book Blindness, which was made into a film by Fernando Meirelles.
Award-winning author John Edgar Wideman, in Writing to Save a Life, tackles the unexplored story of Louis Till, the father of young Civil Rights Era martyr Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi, was accused of whistling at a white woman, caught and murdered like an animal. What we don’t know is that Louis Till never got the opportunity to see his son because he, while serving overseas in World War II, was accused of stealing weapons and rape, court-marshaled, and executed.
Wideman digs into this story from the inside, as a young teen who was the same age as Emmett the summer he was killed. Wideman saw the photos of Emmett Till’s pulpy face. And he saw something of his own father in Louis Till, although his father was around. Both the senior Till and elder Wideman suffered under what we might call toxic masculinity today, as well as ongoing racial strife, and each man slipped up, up, and away at times, in booze and women, doing what men do, leaving women waiting behind.
As a writer, Wideman imagines things about Till, based in part on his father, part on his understanding of black men, and part, I suppose, on the creative license he has, as the teller of this story, which isn’t necessarily Till’s. The thing is that doesn’t make it any less true.
This ability to settle inside the story is something Jenkins, as a filmmaker, shares with Wideman, an urgent need to recognize these connections and give voice to them. There is a softness to how Jenkins approaches the task. He is a man of a different age – both chronologically and with a decided periodic distinction – than Baldwin and Wideman, and not as driven by fear. There is an innocence that he reveals, maybe because he still hangs onto it within himself. He hasn’t been jaded by the experiences of his past.
Which informs his version of the Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk right from the start. His Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) speaks to us in soft voiceovers – directly quoting from the novel – granting us access to her hopes and fears. She, for instance, doesn’t want anyone else to have to see and experience someone they love from behind glass barriers. While she’s informing us though, we watch her with her man Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) as they stroll together in outfits of softly mismatched blues and yellows.
They are in love. They have known each other since they were children, playing in the tub together. Walking and talking and seeing each other for so long, it’s no wonder they didn’t recognize how love had overgrown all around them and wrapped them up in its embrace.
They are a beautiful couple in the frames that Jenkins composes with cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot Moonlight), moreso than the pair as conceived by Baldwin, but remember, Jenkins wants – nay, needs – for the larger mainstream audience to love them too. He understands that for Tish’s opening statement to have meaning, we must love Fonny, so that we hurt right along with her when we see him behind that glass.
Fonny gets accused of rape and railroaded into jail, and before long Tish visits him with news that she’s pregnant. She loves him, we love him, her family – her mother (Regina King), father (Colman Domingo), and sister (Teyonah Parris) – loves him, more it seems than his own self-righteous mother (Aunjanue Ellis).
The book is set in the early 1970s, before the prison system became the industrialized track we know today, but there’s never been in justice in that system for black folks, so it speaks to contemporary concerns without ever having to use the familiar hashtags. It is a period piece, but not slavishly devoted to the times.
It is a story about love, the enduring and undying kind. Love that’s no longer innocent like it once was. Love that gives birth and watches as its offspring steps into an uncertain world.
Some critics will see If Beale Street Could Talk as a departure for Jenkins, since it is not as structured, as ordered as Moonlight. I would argue that it is merely the next step along his creative and personal journey. Although it breaks and reconfigures time and place, it is no less composed than Moonlight. It’s shape is fully-formed. It tells us what we need to know about these characters, Baldwin, and more importantly, Jenkins himself.
This is his story, just like Wideman was really telling his own story in Writing to Save a Life. He couldn’t save the Tills or his father through his words, but he’s desperate to throw a life line to himself, to the version of a black man who made it past 14 or his early 20s or past his prime.
Jenkins saw some alternative path in Moonlight that he was able to escape and in Fonny (and his love of Tish), there’s yet another iteration that probably looks a whole lot like something that could have happened to him. I understand what he’s doing because I have the same visions. I see the dead, incarcerated, soulless versions of myself all the time and I wish I could throw them some rope, some way to see what’s become of me (us).