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:
The trip was also an important opportunity to see the work of many libraries/library workers based in Dakar. My first library stop was at the West African Research Center (WARC), a small library that serves a large number of researchers both locally-based, and visiting. Next, I visited the branch library for the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, pictured below. This branch library makes ingenious use of space, shoehorning periodical shelving and study tables into a corridor, and integrating a reference service point with heavily used test preparation materials.
Finally, I visited the main UCAD library, where on the Friday afternoon before Ramadan, there was hardly an empty seat to be found.
UNC students can learn about opportunities to visit/study abroad in Senegal by visiting the UNC Study Abroad site.
The following guest post was written by David Tenenholtz, the 2015-2017 UNC-CH Music Library CALA. Celebrating African-American Music
June is African American Music Appreciation Month, as officially proclaimed by President Barack Obama. The Stone Center Library and the UNC Music Library are excited to take on President Obama’s described mission to “raise awareness and foster appreciation of music that is composed, arranged, or performed by African Americans” during this month. With resources available both at the Stone Center Library and the Music Library (located at Wilson Library’s lowest level, East entrance), you will be able to learn about the varied styles and rich history of African American music. If you visit the Music Library, please take note of the visual display in the front entrance highlighting some hallmarks of this topic. You will notice albums showcasing the legendary pianistic skill of Art Tatum, the artistry of composers like Duke Ellington and T.J. Anderson, the showmanship of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, and the vocal finesse of opera singer Jessye Norman, to name only a few.
As you can tell from reading this post, this subject may have nearly limitless avenues to explore and research. As an entry-point, please consult with one of the librarians at either the Stone Center Library or the Music Library. To get a quick start, here are introductions to four “firsts” in the history of African American music, and some links to resources that may inspire you to visit us and learn more! 1903: In Dahomey, the first Broadway musical written by African American composers, and starring an entirely African American cast, premieres in New York. You can find the sheet music and biographical information on Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), one of the major African American composers at that time at the Music Library. 1935: Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) joins the Benny Goodman Trio, earning them the distinction of being the first known interracial jazz group. Wilson, deemed the “Jackie Robinson of Jazz,” would go on to record many hit jazz songs with Goodman, vocalist Billie Holiday, and as a soloist. 1962: Bandleader and composer Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington scored the soundtrack to the film Paris Blues, starring Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Louis Armstrong. With this score, Ellington earned the first nomination by an African American composer for an Academy Award for Best Musical Score. 1968: Henry Lewis (1932-1996), a virtuoso on the double-bass who joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic before the age of eighteen, is appointed to lead the New Jersey Symphony, making him the first African American symphony conductor. Within another few years, Lewis went on to be the first African American to conduct the Metropolitan Opera.
Stories are an integral part of how we understand our communities—both their histories and our place within them. Theater is uniquely suited to this function, as every dramatic performance creates space removed one step from reality. On the stage, we can explore not just who we are, but who we might be.
A highlight of Telling Our Stories of Home, an ongoing 6-day conference-festival that brings artists, activists, and scholars together to examine the concept of “home” in African and African-Diaspora communities, will be the performance of Torn Asunder, a specially commissioned play based on the book Help Me to Find My People by Heather Williams, that focuses on the quest of African-American families to reunite after the Civil War.
It is from Torn Asunder that we take our cue, providing some complementary resources that expand on the intersection of theater and TOSH’s theme of “home.” The following list consists of a small selection of the Stone Center Library’s theater-related books that we hope will spur your imagination and curiosity in this fascinating and vital discussion. All quoted summaries are taken from the UNC-CH library catalog. Continue reading “Mirrored on the Stage: A Selection of Books on African and African-Diaspora Theater”
Feb. 24, 2016, marks the 10thanniversary of the death of Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006), known as the “grand dame of science fiction.” Her books and short stories critiqued contemporary power structures while imagining a radical new future, addressing issues of class, race, gender and sexuality along the way. Her powerful visions of the world as it could be helped kickstart a new literary genre: Afrofuturism, an examination of the intersection between race and technology that envisions the future while interrogating the past.
A lifelong writer, Octavia Butler’s body of work includes twelve novels and two short story collections. Her novels have won numerous honors and awards within the science fiction community and beyond. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.”
The Stone Center Library is proud to join the celebration the literary impact of Octavia Butler’s life. Many of Octavia Butler’s writings are available at UNC Libraries, so rather than list her novels, we would like to highlight the literary conversation that is part of her legacy.
In this post, we’ve gathered books that feature discussion of Octavia Butler’s work, analyzing its themes and looking at it in the context of African American, science fiction, and Afrofuturist literature.
All of these books are available at the Stone Center Library. Each title links to the book’s UNC Library catalog entry, where you can check their availability and learn more about them. Each entry is also accompanied by quote from the book’s official description. Continue reading ““So be it! See to it!”: A Celebration of Octavia Butler”