When people of color consider their history of revolution, images may come to mind of Toussaint Louverture defeating French colonialists; of Nat Turner, musket in hand, making his way across the Virginia countryside; of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking of dreams; of Malcolm X offering the choice of the ballot or the bullet; and of the Black Panther Party, clad in leather jackets and berets, standing firmly against the Oakland PD. But all these stories begin with the first true revolution anyone will face in their lives: the revolution of being ones self. It is only by coming into full self-actualization that a man or woman finds the strength to stand to their full height, shed their chains, raise their voice, and begin the walk to freedom for themselves, their families, and their communities.
A knower of self, James Baldwin, wrote the 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In it, the young African-American protagonists Fonny and Tish engage in the revolutionary act of self-discovery and in the process find not only themselves but also love.
“Beale Street” is filled with the ups and downs, laughter and tears that come with being black in America. The books rich narrative of injustice invokes overwhelming emotions, as the language and imagery jump off the page. Barry Jenkins, Oscar-winning writer and director of the Best Picture Academy Award winner “Moonlight,” has masterfully shepherded Baldwin’s brilliance onto the screen with his new movie “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Jenkins has his fingers firmly on the pulse of the love that lives at the center of Baldwin’s story. With lush color palettes, timeless soundscapes, and impeccable and impassioned performers, Jenkins takes us to a time that is both then and now, realizing Baldwin’s tale of revolution. Fonny finds himself through sculpture and steps from the well-trodden path to take the road less traveled; his beloved Tish wrestles with the difference between what society deems proper and what her heart knows to be true. She has not settled, in that she has followed her heart and it has led her to Fonny.
Tish and Fonny win the first revolution — that of self-discovery — which leads them to the second revolution, black love.
While self-realization is a struggle black people have faced for time immemorial, the open expression of love between us was prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 not lawful, as marriage was prohibited. What, then, could we do? We could and did love each other openly under the night sky. We could wade into the water and chase the north star toward freedom from oppression. We could join hands, tired and calloused from working in the fields, and jump brooms in clandestine ceremonies. We could even share a shack if the plantation owner thought it would quell an uprising. But we could not, of our own choosing, openly and legally love out loud; to do so was a punishable act of defiance. And yet we dared to love, facing severe consequences. Black love was, is, and always will be an act of revolution.
Recently uncovered by the University of Southern California, the 1898 silent film “Something Good-Negro Kiss” shows what is reported to be the first filmed kiss between black people. This kiss was more than just a show of affection; it was a response to misrepresentations of black life and culture, showing complete and whole people of color. 120 years later, Jenkins’ movie takes up that mantle of black love as revolution which is as important now as it ever was. When “Something Good-Negro Kiss” was made, one of the dominant forms of entertainment was minstrelsy, purveying stereotypes and propaganda acted out mainly by whites in blackface. Today, people of color are still misrepresented in popular media and are too often painted as loud, criminal, ignorant, and hypersexual. Something Good-Negro Kiss sought to counter negative images, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” seeks redemptive ground anew.
Jenkins reaffirms Baldwin’s call to action: see us struggling, see us laughing, see us unsure, see us win, see us lose. Watch us disagree but never forget we love one another. Watch us weather rough times but never forget we love one another. Watch us not get what we want but never forget we love one another. Watch how unwavering love can pull us through wrongful incarcerations, forever proving itself a light in dark times.
Revolutionary black love in America is Martin and Coretta, Betty and Malcolm, Florida and James, George and Weezy. It is you steadying your steps as you walk from Selma to Montgomery. It is you in a pre-Obama-era tan suit walking down the aisle of a wedding thats not yours shouting, ”Baby, please, please!” It is your listening to a brother at a Chicago open-mic night. And it is you in Baldwin’s Harlem as reimagined by Jenkins, exploring what life and love would say if Beale Street could talk.
Jon Goode is an Emmy nominated and award-winning author, poet, screenwriter and playwright. Jon hails from Richmond, Virginia, currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and has been a featured performer on CNN’s Black in America, HBO’s Def Poetry, TVOne’s Verses & Flow and BET’s Lyric Café. He’s written interstitials, radio commercials and print ads for Nick@Nite, Nike, McDonald’s and TVLand. In 2006, his work with Nick@Nite earned him an Emmy nomination alongside the Promax Gold for best copyright North America. Jon’s debut collection of poems and short stories, Conduit, was published in 2015.