by Sarah Guy, Research Assistant
The end of the year typically sees theaters inundated with critically acclaimed films that are surrounded by talk of Academy Award nominations. This year is no exception, and one such film is an adaptation of a classic work by James Baldwin titled If Beale Street Could Talk. The film, directed by Barry Jenkins, hits U.S. theaters next month, following a positive reception at the Toronto International Film Festival and at a showing in Harlem, where the novel is set, as part of the New York Film Festival. The film is already drumming up Oscars buzz in light of Jenkins’ success in 2016, when his movie Moonlighttook home Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali), and Best Motion Picture of the Year, and received five other nominations.
Jenkins’s latest endeavor is the first time a James Baldwin novel has been adapted to the big screen in English. The story is the love story of Tish and Fonny, a young black couple living in 1970s Harlem, and how they deal with adversity when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and then Tish finds out she is pregnant. Baldwin wrote the novel in 1974 and, at first, it received mixed reviews. In A Historical Guide to James Baldwin, Douglas Fields writes, “Though the book got some of Baldwin’s best reviews in a decade, an almost equal number attacked the novel as being slight and nostalgic and out of step with the times.”
Like other Baldwin novels, If Beale Street Could Talk deals with the reality of injustice in the black community. Fonny’s plight reflects the fate of too many young black men, their lives irrevocably altered by unjust imprisonment. This theme may have been inspired by a particular instance in Baldwin’s life: the case of a friend named Tony Maynard who also worked as Baldwin’s bodyguard and chauffeur. Maynard had a record for drug possession when he was accused of murdering a U.S. Marine in New York. He was caught in Germany, where he was beaten, and Baldwin rushed to Germany to ensure that Maynard had legal representation. Maynard wasn’t released until the same year that If Beale Street Could Talk was published.
And yet, the book ends on a hopeful note, with the birth of a child. Perhaps the birth at the novel’s end signals a hope that Baldwin held onto, even after seeing the lives of so many African American people affected by false accusations like those leveled at Fonny, and at Tony Maynard. Initially, the hopeful ending seems to be out of touch with the harsh realities of the novel, however, maybe it’s actually a telling juxtaposition that reveals life in its complexity as a place where beauty and pain coexist in paradox.
In an interview with the LA Times, Jenkins summed up these two opposing themes this way: “One of those modes is the protest, the anger. And then there’s the lush, the romantic, the hopeful. I think with ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ you find the best pairing and balancing of those two things. It was a challenge worth undertaking.” In December, we’ll be able to see the film in theaters to determine if Jenkins withstood the challenge and succeeded in bringing Baldwin’s work to life on screen for the first time.
As Jenkins’ nephew Trevor Baldwin said before the showing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem: “As we gather this evening to witness the product of Uncle Jimmy’s words from yesterday, through the lens of Barry today, with the amazing cast of tomorrow, together creating a contemporary period piece that touches the soul, there is no darkness ’cause the lights are bright on Beale Street.”
If you’re interested in other James Baldwin books, or other Barry Jenkins movies, check out a few of these available at UNC Libraries.
A few of Baldwin’s novels and essay collections:
There’s a new exhibit on display at the Stone Center Library!
Our current exhibit highlights Black superheroes in comics and media, addressing how important race representation is in media.
In 2016, only 29.2% of speaking roles in movies were roles for people of color – even though people of color make up almost 40% of the population of the United States. Black characters represented only 13.6% of speaking roles, while Asian and Hispanic characters made up 5.7 and 3.1% of speaking roles, respectively. Only 7% of films had a cast that accurately reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States; one study found that over 20% of films had no Black characters with dialogue.
Seeing characters who look like them has been shown to promote the development of a healthy racial identity in children and young adults. When young adults see people of color in fiction who are successful, intelligent, and happy, it teaches them that they, too, can be all of those things and more.
“This is how representation works: you see someone (real or fictional) and you feel inspired to do what they do. It may not necessarily be the exact same thing, but you feel bold enough to take a leap of faith: “If they can do it, so can I.”” – Jamie Broadnax, Vox
Interested? Curious to learn more? Check out some of these resources on race and representation, available right here in the Stone Center Library! And don’t forget to come see the full exhibit in person!
It’s no secret that the Academy Awards have historically been less than diverse. Last year, frustrations overflowed after all 20 of the nominees for Best Acting awards were white for the second year in a row. Widespread dissatisfaction with this state of affairs manifested online in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, coined by activist April Reign.
In response to this criticism, Reign led the Academy in taking some steps to diversify itself. In 2016, the Academy invited 683 new members to its highly secretive roster of approximately 6,000. Of this new class, nearly half were women and people of color: 46% women and 41% POC. (Compare that to the previous year’s class, which was 25% women and 8% POC.) While the Academy remains disproportionately white and male, it has committed to doubling the number of women and minorities in its roster by 2020.
Shockingly, it would almost seem that increasing the number women and people of color in the Academy leads to having more women and people of color nominated in the Academy Awards! Although there is a long way to go before parity is achieved, this year’s Oscars are some of the most diverse yet, and have marked a historic level of achievement for Black performers, directors, writers, and filmmakers. Some of the history-making nominations at the 2017 Oscars include:
Are you a fan of superhero movies? Then today’s SCL Pick is for you! One of our latest arrivals is Super black : American pop culture and black superheroes, by Adilifu Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011). Check out an excerpt from the publisher’s review below: “Nama examines seminal black comic book superheroes such as Black Panther, Black Lightning, Storm, Luke Cage, Blade, the Falcon, Nubia, and others, some of whom also appear on the small and large screens, as well as how the imaginary black superhero has come to life in the image of President Barack Obama. Super Black explores how black superheroes are a powerful source of racial meaning, narrative, and imagination in American society that express a myriad of racial assumptions, political perspectives, and fantastic (re)imaginings of black identity.The book also demonstrates how these figures overtly represent or implicitly signify social discourse and accepted wisdom concerning notions of racial reciprocity, equality, forgiveness, and ultimately, racial justice.” (Source: http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/namsue.html)
Looking for more on the topic? Professor Nama has also written Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, which is available at Davis Library. If you’re looking to broaden your search, subject headings that may be of use include “African Americans in motion pictures” and “Blacks in motion pictures.” There’s also the Stone Center Library’s Guide to the Web, which features sections on Films and Documentaries, as well as Film Festivals. And, as always, we’re happy to provide reference assistance – whether it’s in person, via email, or through chat reference (StoneCenterRef) – come on by for a consultation!
The 84th annual Academy Awards will take place this Sunday and among this year’s contenders is The Help, which has been nominated for four awards, including nods for Viola Davis (Best Actress) and Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress). This film takes place in 1960s Mississippi and chronicles the intersecting lives of white women and their African-American maids against the backdrop of major social upheaval nationwide. Of course, before it was an Oscar-nominated film, The Help was a best-selling book, as reviewed by Stone Center Librarian Shauna Collier in a previous SCL blog post, and available here at the Library.
Interested in learning more about African Americans and the film industry? Here, in no particular order, are ten titles to get you started:
“This documentary tells the story of this important 19th century leader and his escape from slavery, leading to refuge in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine. The film focuses on the powerful influence Ireland had on him as a young man. It also explores the turbulent relationship between African Americans and Irish Americans in general. The relationship is exposed as a complex and tragic sequence of events culminating in the bloodiest riot in American history. This transatlantic story covers the race issue and is as relevant today as it was when Douglass escaped to Ireland—“I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life…I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip telling me ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!’””
This semester’s other screenings will be held on 2/10, 2/17, 2/24, 3/3, and 3/15. Screenings generally feature commentary by the directors and/or relevant scholars and are held in the Stone Center’s Hitchcock Multipurpose Room. For a full calendar of the films to be shown, click here.