Barry Jenkins' newest film If Beale Street Could Talk inspires one student to think more deeply about Black mythology, Black giants and the power of storytelling. The film opens nationally on December 14.
By guest blogger Nicholas Whittaker '19
James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk was published in 1974, a little more than 20 years after his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain. In the interim, he became an icon with now-legendary texts such as The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son and No Name in the Street. He was on TV screens, radio airways, in Selma and on the FBI’s radar (with one of the most comprehensive files to date). That is to say that by the time the small and insular Beale Street was off the presses, Baldwin’s legacy as the giant who haunts our country was secure.
When Barry Jenkins, the visionary director fresh off a Best Picture Oscar for his 2017 Black queer love story Moonlight, declared his next film to be an adaption of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, one may very well have wondered how Jenkins could possibly hope to capture the gigantic legacy of Baldwin on screen. Harvard students are well familiar with this worry. At this institution, its walls and spires so high they seem to disappear into the clouds, we have the works of masters, heroes, icons, giants, placed in our hands, and are told to make something of them. We are given The Odyssey and Ulysses, The Second Sex and Raisin in the Sun, A Kind of Blue and Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits with which to “engage” or to write a 20-page paper that is more than vamping, but that means something, says something. We are forced to spend a semester unpacking works that have been studied for decades, centuries, millennia. We are made to deal with giants.
But these giants seem so removed from ourselves. It’s not that we don’t care about them. It’s that they seem to signify a world of ideas and histories and cosmos that we can never access.
On November 29, the Harvard Art Museums offered a preview screening of Beale Street before its national release on December 14. It was part of the programming around the exhibition Time is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America, on view at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts through December 30. On a whim, excited by the prospect of a new Jenkins movie, I attended the screening.
Beale Street is a fantastic movie. This much I knew to be true within the first half hour. But there are many artfully done movies, and simply describing Jenkin’s films as fantastic, as beautiful, seems to miss something important, to miss what heralds him one of the great filmmakers of our times.
After the film’s halfway point (I’ll try to avoid spoilers), the main character’s mother (played by Regina King) journeys from Harlem, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her mission is to do her part to save her family from the crisis serving as the central drama of the film. That entails a fancy dinner with nonBlack folks, and that entails doing her face and tying back her natural hair to make room for a Ronettes-style wig.
This vignette does little (again, as few spoilers as possible) to move along the plot, and marks a curious divergence from the character dramas we had been following up to that point. But Jenkins does not leave King to vanish into plot machinery. Rather, Jenkins allows her to become more: more than a bit player, yes, but he does not stop there. After the screening a friend used the word “giant” to describe King’s character, particularly at this point in the film. Jenkins, that is, transforms King into more than a human being. She becomes a mythic entity striding her way across the massive movie screen and our minds and the torn and tawdry landscape of America.
I felt this mysticism, this mythological proportionality, in one precise moment. King stands in her hotel room, having just changed into what was likely the most expensive dress she owns. The camera watches her tie back her hair and pick up her wig. She reaches down, caressing the hair and bringing the wig back up to her head. Then the camera suddenly cuts; now, it gazes at her from the perspective of the mirror. In what has become a Jenkins trademark, King stares directly into the camera, and beyond. Her eyes scared me as she places the wig on her head. The scene moves in slow-motion, giving her movements an eerie, uncanny quality. It felt like I waited an eon, the span of America’s 400-year existence, for her to take the wig off her head. The yellow of the lamplight became infused with redness and purpleness and blueness coming from some strange firmament. This massive face, splayed across a movie screen as large as a lecture hall, transcended humanity. King became a god, a legend, a myth. A giant.
I remember a mirrored mirror scene in Moonlight. Chiron soaks his face after being beaten black and blue, and he looks up and into the mirror/camera and stares deep into the viewer. This Black boy becomes giant in that moment. His gaze haunts; it makes him bigger than you and me. Jenkins sketches mythologies and cosmologies with his camera. He’s creating a 21st-century Bible of Black Saints and Sinners, a holy text written in the stars. In a film tradition where Black art is thought of as journalism, as reporting from the trenches, as reactionary, gritty, real - The Wire, Fruitvale Station - Jenkins builds his own artistic pathway on the belief that Black folks deserve mythologies. We deserve icons. We deserve giants.
We are giants.
All this is to say that If Beale Street Could Talk treated Baldwin and his stories with the religious awe they deserve. And in doing so, Jenkins reminded me that the Black giants behind me are not inaccessible. Their mythic proportions do not render them into history lessons. Rather, Jenkins reveals that treating Black giants as myths, as spiritual texts, as saints and sinners and gods, allows us to access them in a personal, deeply felt way.
In a world where the canons of arts and culture systematically disregard the possibility of Black mythology, where both Black and nonBlack students are denied Black giants, Jenkins (and Baldwin before him) work to remind us that America is filled with Black mythologies. American mythology is Black mythology. And in so providing us with a world of Black giants, Jenkins reminds us that these giants can speak, Beale Street can talk, with great booming voices from the heavens. Jenkins forces Black folks into the world of spirituality, religion, mythology. And in doing so, I was able to feel the Black tradition, to feel Black giants, with a force and presence and urgency we too rarely are given.
Time is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America is co-organized by the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the Harvard Art Museums, and is curated by Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums.