During the late ‘90s, the Camp Lejeune library shared a parking lot with the base Burger King. On weekend mornings, I’d park my pickup between the two and visit the library until hangover hunger sent me scurrying across the asphalt for a burger and fries to go with whatever books I’d checked out.
I like to tell people that the Camp Lejeune library was the place where I first began to pay regular and sustained attention to fiction. The place where I began to read stories differently—closer. The image of a young Lance Corporal, hunched like a question mark over The Things They Carried while surrounded by dusty tomes of war, fits nicely with the narrative I try to project about my stint in the Marine Corps. But looking back, I probably read more in Camp Lejeune’s Burger King than I did in its library. And the image of a lanky, razor bump spackled kid, dribbling pickles and mayo onto an Elfquest novel while surrounded by the smell of burger grease, doesn’t play quite as well. Still, this was how I finished If Beale Street Could Talk the first time around—with the novel’s spine cracked open on a Burger-King-beige Formica table, while damn near dislocating my jaw on a double Whopper with the works.
Beale Street wasn’t my first foray into James Baldwin’s writing. In high school, I’d read his screenplay, One Day When I was Lost, based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As a 12-year-old suddenly obsessed with Black Nationalism (and who’d also begun to suspect that one could only read, re-read, and quote Malcolm so much), Baldwin’s screenplay felt like a natural next step. Entering what Ta-Nehisi Coates called the “shadow canon,” I read my way from Richard Wright to Nikki Giovanni to Dick Gregory, Eldridge Cleaver, and Claude Brown, before returning to Baldwin and catching a headshot like a shotgun slug from The Fire Next Time. You only get coldcocked by the punches you don’t see coming. More than just my thoughts on identity, religion, citizenship, and sexuality, Baldwin’s book length essay challenged my very idea of love, and not in the we shall overcome, kumbaya sense of the word either.
Love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Combining Malcolm’s bitter sarcasm, Martin’s uncorroborated optimism, Dick Gregory’s shrill defiance, and just a dash of Eldridge’s utter contempt, The Fire Next Time is a remarkable human document and, of all of Baldwin’s work, remains my favorite.
If I’m being honest, I can’t even claim Beale Street as my favorite of Baldwin’s fiction. That distinction belongs to Sonny’s Blues, one of the most anthologized stories of all time, originally published in Baldwin’s only collection of short fiction, Going to Meet the Man. And, depending on what time of day you ask me, either Another Country or Giovanni’s Room top my list of Baldwin’s full-length novels.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved If Beale Street Could Talk in the way I love almost everything Baldwin wrote. At the moment I write this, I have difficulty thinking of another writer about whom I would make this statement. Maybe Tobias Wolff. But before the film, Beale Street wouldn’t have topped my list in any category, and I say this as a staunch believer that Baldwin is one of those writers about whom all Americans should have had to write a term paper or two. Few loved the United States the way James Baldwin did. And he expressed the oscillating hope and despair this love produced with calculated ferocity.
I was aware that they all had in common something that made them Americans, but I could never put my finger on what it was. I knew that whatever this common quality was, I shared it. And I knew that Giovanni had been attracted to me partly because of it. When Giovanni wanted me to know that he was displeased with me he said I was a vrai Americain; conversely when delighted, he said that I was not an American at all; and on both occasions he was striking deep in me, a nerve which did not throb in him. And I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing.
Having spent much of my adult life outside of the United States, this passage reminds me of the complexities of American citizenship. My country’s history, aspirations, bizarre boasts, even more bizarre embarrassments, and position in the world are at once unique, ludicrous, necessary, brutal, beautiful, and heartbreakingly tragic. No matter how layered and plural my allegiances become, Americaness—with all its stubborn resistance to simple definitions—will remain inextricably linked to my identity. The dilemma of chiseling out an identity in a country still struggling to define itself is not unique to black Americans. By pigeonholing Baldwin as solely a chronicler of American race relations, we do a disservice both to his legacy and ourselves.
Curating the Things I Love
After finally getting the chance to see Barry Jenkins’ film, which is no small feat given the film’s limited release and the fact that I live in the Philippines, I’m happy to include If Beale Street Could Talk on my list of “Movies I Loved More than the Book.” There. I said it. If Beale Street Could Talk is a great novel, but it’s an even better movie.
From a very young age I’ve retained a burning urge to corral the things I love into neat rows of preference. From short stories set in the American south to mid-90s East Coast rappers, these rankings are terribly specific and, for me, terrifically important. Make no mistake: if you tell me your favorite movie, book, or show, I will judge aspects of your personality based upon it. As Nick Hornby put it, “It’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.”
Is the “Movies I Love More than the Book” one of my more obscure lists? Yes, but it’s also one of my favorites. Including tossups like A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting, books and films that—for better or worse—informed my early twenties. Clear winners like Apocalypse Now—I’m glad I read Conrad, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed any of his work—and titles like Dead Presidents that have never gotten their due. Neither the Hughes brothers’ film, nor Wallace Terry’s Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History get the attention they deserve. Recent entries like I Kill Giants have left me increasingly reverent of my not-quite-teenage daughter’s taste. On the opposite end of the spectrum, movies like Starship Troopers remind me just how breathtakingly badly an adaptation can go.1 The very best film adaptations honor their source material, but aren’t necessarily faithful to it. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins manages both.
Baldwin’s novel chronicles the life of the 22 year-old Fonny, a sculptor falsely accused of the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. A white police officer, Bell, instructs the assaulted woman to pick Fonny out of a police lineup. Set in the early 1970s, the story should feel dated, but doesn’t, because the real villain isn’t Bell at all, but rather the—still very much extant—systems that disempower the lives of black Americans. This fundamental misunderstanding: that racism is not simply individual prejudices, biases, and hatreds, but rather that systems of oppression persist in the United States to this day, and is one of the reasons why movies like Green Book(which features an individual white man getting over his individual prejudices) still, astoundingly, garner so much critical acclaim. Told in the voice of Tish, Fonny’s 19-year-old pregnant fiancée, the novel chronicles the families’ struggle to prove their son’s innocence, and "pay for proving."
No director could have maintained better fidelity to Baldwin’s tale of the tragedy of the American criminal justice system and the—far less often depicted—unsentimental beauty of black love. Jenkins continues to avoid what Hilton Als calls “Negro hyperbole”—the overblown clichés that are so often used to represent black American life. In Beale Street, the duality of Baldwin’s voice—the essayist focused on dismantling systemic injustice and the novelist obsessed with the meaning of sensuality and love—intertwines perfectly. With shots lush enough to be framed and his trademark unflinching fourth-wall-shattering close-ups, Jenkins infuses the novel with a cavalcade of the sublime—rendering visible the richness of Baldwin’s interior voice.
In her 1974 New York Times book review, Joyce Carol Oates called Baldwin’s novel, “…an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalyptic excesses.”
Jenkins eschewed the apocalyptic excesses. But—as a stunningly talented visual storyteller, who builds complex metaphors out of concrete images—it’s almost as if Jenkins took the first portion of Oates’ declaration as a dare. I can’t wait to see what he does with The Underground Railroad.
…and, man, I hope they don’t mix up the envelopes this year.
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