The author reviews Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, finding that Jenkins’s lush, painterly, and dreamlike visual style successfully translates Baldwin’s cadenced prose into cinematic language. But in interpreting the novel as the “perfect fusion” of the anger of Baldwin’s essays and the sensuality of his fiction, Jenkins overlooks the novel’s most significant aspect, its gender politics. Baldwin began working on If Beale Street Could Talk shortly after being interviewed by Black Arts poet Nikki Giovanni for the PBS television show, Soul!. Giovanni’s rejection of Baldwin’s claims that for black men to overcome the injuries of white supremacy they needed to fulfill the breadwinner role prompted him to rethink his understanding of African American manhood and deeply influenced his representation of the novel’s black male characters. The novel aims to disarticulate black masculinity from patriarchy. Jenkins’s misunderstanding of this aspect of the novel surfaces in his treatment of the character of Frank, who in the novel serves as an example of the destructiveness of patriarchal masculinity, and in his rewriting of the novel’s ending.
Recounting a celebration at ASA 2018, reflecting on the twenty-year anniversary of the publication of the edited collection James Baldwin Now, celebrating the early success of this journal, and canvassing the renaissance in interest in James Baldwin, Dwight A. McBride introduces the fifth volume of James Baldwin Review.
I reflect on the place of If Beale Street Could Talk in the corpus of Baldwin’s writings, and its relationship to Barry Jenkins’s movie released at the beginning of 2019. I consider also what the arrival of the movie can tell us about how Baldwin is located in contemporary collective memories.
This article uses Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” to consider that literary mode’s corollary in the 1990s New Black Cinema. It argues that recent African American movies posit an alternative to the politics and aesthetics of films by a director such as Spike Lee, one that evinces a set of qualities Baldwin calls for in his essay about Black literature. Among these are what recent scholars such as Ann Anlin Cheng have called racial melancholy or what Kevin Quashie describes as Black “quiet,” as well as variations on Yogita Goyal’s diaspora romance. Films such as Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offer a cinematic version of racial narrative at odds with the protest tradition I associate with earlier Black directors, a newly resonant cinema that we might see as both a direct and an indirect legacy of Baldwin’s views on African American culture and politics.