Culture

Baldwin Bowdlerized

KiKi Lane and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk (Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)
If Beale Street Could Talk reduces race to a political formula.

Call it Baldwinetics. The current trend of quoting James Baldwin to validate contemporary racial concepts and political fantasy explains If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name that director Barry (Moonlight) Jenkins has made into a new movie hodgepodge.

Beale Street’s love story between a pair of Harlem youths, Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) is overfreighted with modern racial anxieties. The film’s Baldwinetics might confound naïve moviegoers who are sold the idea of seeing a powerful personal story with political resonance, but they get a helter-skelter lecture instead. Baldwinetics reduce the learned author’s moral and political exertions into marketable fodder.

Starry-eyed Fonny and Tish are presented as the first romantics to oppose their society and elders. (Not since Romeo & Juliet has a duo been so tragic, but I’ll detail another, more pertinent source later.) As both a love story and a reminiscence of 1970s black social awareness, Jenkins’s Beale Street is not sensual or idealistic enough, and it feels thoroughly inauthentic. Simpleton Tish expresses every emotion as if it’s the first emotion, and Fonny is a strapping fetish object with artistic ambitions; he either builds sculptures that knowingly evoke the twisty, solid, nature-based constructions of Martin Puryear or frowns about racial oppression (“This country don’t like niggers,” “Malcolm said whites must be evil”).

Jenkins’s graceless storytelling misreads Baldwin’s hard thinking and anguished writing — Millennial fans admire his anguish — resulting in a mush-minded protest movie. Like Spike Lee, Jenkins builds a collage of cultural references and topical complaints. Cutaways to black-and-white photo montages interrupt the love story with police harassment, a strategy that includes a white racist Meth-head cop — an apparition likely borrowed from Lee’s Clockers or 25th Hour.  Such incidents make this movie more about Ferguson, Mo., than about Harlem’s losing its classic history to the millennium’s white gentrification. Fonny and Tish frequently escape Harlem to enjoy New York’s bohemian West Village enclaves, even encountering an ethnically sympathetic landlord. This sop to the white liberal audience presents Fonny and Tish as lambs to America’s racist slaughter. Such sentimentality might fool naïve viewers with no sense of racial history or urban housing patterns, but it won’t lure black audiences who don’t want or need to see more suffering at the movies (as the box-office failure of Moonlight proved).

Baldwin’s status as a civil-rights pioneer who enunciated America’s problems, alongside black intellectual struggle, continues to misdirect cultural expectations. Raoul Peck’s doc I Am Not Your Negro, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, and Ava DuVernay’s pronouncements have bowdlerized Baldwin into a contemporary paradigm of indignant black strivers. The haughtiness of these new race hustlers is evident throughout Beale Street as each unrecognizable character gets diminished into a social-justice fantasy figure. Jenkins reaches nadir early: when Fonny and Tish’s families meet to discuss the young couple’s impending out-of-wedlock parenthood. This scene is disastrous: a battle between the sexes, generations, and social beliefs portrayed as a family fracas. Black Christianity, Baldwin’s life-long agon, is ridiculed. Pious, worldly, and political skepticism all break down into belligerence and violence — think Amos ’n’ Andy for the #MeToo era, or The Jeffersons for Black Lives Matter zealots.

It is Jenkins’s Baldwinetics that degrade the author’s ambivalence about religion and family to make them comply with contemporary progressivism’s anti-religious, anti-family rage. This family feud — with its uneven acting, absurd locutions (“Unbow your head, sister!”), and ferocious profanity — dehumanizes black experience and appeals to the worst, wildest stereotypes. (Another low point is an unnecessary subplot in which Regina King as Tish’s mother plays global-Mammy detective, and her faith in gender and ethnic solidarity gets shaken.)

Jenkins, who is 39 years old, is too young to have experienced the 1970s blaxploitation era and so, like many Millennials, he has no awareness of how demeaning “stereotypes” can be. Yet he’s intrigued by the use of black stereotypes as the definition of a social class. In Jenkins’s fantasy, Baldwin’s fictional ’70s justifies this miserabilism. Yet, unlike Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer, in which Daniel Day Lewis and Emily Watson’s passionate immediacy personified generations of Irish struggle, Jenkins’s characterizations do not uncover ingrained racial or political memory; the effect is simply sorrowful.

If Baldwin were alive, he might confess that Beale Street was his own blackface version of the 1930s Marcel Pagnol film trilogy Fanny, Marius, César about working-class ethnic experience in Marseilles. Cosmopolitan Baldwin used Pagnol’s material (wildly popular among midcentury art-house fans) as his novel’s source, substituting Harlem for Marseilles. He wove civil-rights commitment into his expatriate’s admiration and his overseas private life with other American expats, including his personal relationship with food writer Richard Olney. Ironically, when Olney’s disciple, chef Alice Waters, described the bourgeois gustatory taste she had learned in France, her testimony inadvertently summarized the romanticism, and the politics, of Baldwin’s Beale Street:

the sunny good feelings of another world that contained so much that was incomplete or missing in our own — the simple, wholesome, good food of Provence, the atmosphere of tolerant camaraderie and great lifelong friendships, and a respect for both the old folks and their pleasures and for the young and their passions.

Jenkins misses all of that. Rather, he replaces sophistication with harangue, the woeful legacy of Baldwinetics.

Baldwinetics derive from the conceit of public intellectuals such as Peck, Coates, DuVernay, and now Jenkins whose authority is conferred by the very institutions they pretend to challenge. But they actually assist in those institutions’ ultimate social and cultural control. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwinetics use the late scribe’s minor novel as the latest occasion for Hollywood to exploit the current race fashion.

 

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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