‘Beale Street’ talks: Baldwin knew then what we know now

Marquise Francis
National Reporter & Producer

(Video produced by Gabrielle Levesque)

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The film adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk” won an Oscar this week, with Regina King earning the Best Supporting Actress award. The film, directed by Barry Jenkins, brought to life a novel by the acclaimed author and social critic James Baldwin, who memorialized love and injustice in 1970s New York. It’s a love story about Tish and Fonny, a young couple from Harlem, who forge an unbreakable bond in the face of an unforgiving and racially biased world. “If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of New York through tough times — representing many of the same issues black people continue to face today.

Baldwin has long been synonymous with black pride and New York City. Born in Harlem in 1924, he published “If Beale Street Could Talk” some 50 years later, a time when the city was reeling from social and economic turmoil. His writing helped others understand the plight of black Americans during this time period, and it also expressed some of own struggles of living as a gay and bisexual black man when it was far less accepted. “The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him,” Baldwin once said in a 1971 conversation with fellow writer and activist Nikki Giovanni. Baldwin was New York and New York was Baldwin.

Through “Beale Street” Baldwin encouraged black people to fight for equality. He also showed people how to love, how to dream and how to believe. More than four decades later, the legacy of this tale is still relevant. “Uncle Jimmy was able to articulate some of the things people are frustrated with right now,” Trevor Baldwin, nephew of James Baldwin, said. “I think we all need someone who existed before us who we identified with. And Uncle Jimmy is famous for saying, when asked [about] being born black, poor and gay, he said he hit the jackpot.”

It was important for the filmmakers to capture the spirit of the novel by including places and locations that brought an older Harlem to life again. “In the book, Harlem is their place of hope,” Samson Jacobson, the locations manager for the film said. “It’s this big expansive universe where anything is possible and they’re the safest in that world.”

Showman’s Jazz Club was one of the bars used for a scene in the movie. Established in 1942 adjacent to the famed Apollo theater, it became a place where musicians took a break from performing on the big stage to play for people that could not get into the sold-out shows. “We keep up the tradition that makes sure we are Harlem musicians,” bar manager Mona Lopez said.

Actor Ebony Obsidian, who played Fonny’s sister Adrianne Hunt in “Beale Street,” said, “We have so much beautiful black content today because people feel represented. That’s the world that they see.” She added that Baldwin was able to properly convey the reality of the world around him. “Camaraderie and connection is a huge part of how New York works. … That’s the world that Baldwin lived in.”