Art Books Film and Television

If Beale Street Could Talk: On Confinement (Spoilers)


I recently had the pleasure of, first, reading James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, then seeing Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation.  I loved them both.  I highly recommend both. But if you can, definitely read the novel first.  I won’t much bother with a novel once I’ve seen the movie (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone being the lone exception).  Spoilers seriously ruin the experience for me.  And with that, be aware that very serious spoilers reside below.  If you’re intent on a spoiler-free reading or movie-going experience, STOP HERE!!  Come back later.  Enjoy!

After reading (and seeing) Beale Street, I wanted to write about it, but was filled with enough thoughts for a full graduate-level thesis, so I decided to tackle it using bite-sized chunks of insights and thoughts for blogging purposes.  As time permits, and interest persists, I would like to come back to Beale Street for additional discrete nuggets.  There’s just so much to say!

As a quick summary, Beale Street tells the story of a family in love and turmoil. Fonny and Tish are two young lovers expecting their first child. Fonny, having been wrongfully accused of a terrible crime, has been imprisoned, awaiting the slow and unreliable wheels of justice to turn in his favor. Tish, along with her family, are working furiously to liberate him. Of course, there is much more to the story, but this is the gist for anyone who needs a quick catching-up. For the sake of brevity, I’d rather get to my point than labor in a recap.

For me, one of the most crushing revelations is tossed into the story so casually. It is presented as a mere comment of intent – it’s deeper meaning unexamined by the both Fonny and Tish. Late in the story, as Tish is visiting Fonny in prison, he says “ Now. I’m an artisan. Like a cat who makes – tables. I don’t like the word artist.  Maybe I never did.  I sure the fuck don’t know what it means.”  And with that, our beloved has resigned himself.  Having been transformed from sculptor to craftsman, Fonny’s imprisonment has become permanent.  So, how does this revelation equate with imprisonment? Well, an artist is free.  Innovation is the product of a completely liberated mind.  And in prison, Fonny’s imagination has become constrained.  Imprisoned.  Forever. 

Baldwin’s genius is to illustrate what he, himself, fears must be the most dreaded form of imprisonment and to project that onto Fonny, to devastating effect. 

The confinement of  Fonny’s imagination takes place on two levels: (1) the imagination of the sculptor to see and create form from his raw material has been suppressed and (2) the imagination of the human to see and reach for a life of his own choosing has been extinguished.  

Don’t get me wrong, my intent is not to elevate art above artisanship.  It is merely to emphasize that an artist labors with a particular liberty.  And the devastation is not in being a craftsman, but in denying his own vision for himself.  Denying his own creativity by telling himself that he doesn’t even know what that creativity – and what art – means, is crushing for the reader.  This is particularly resonant given that Baldwin, himself, is an artist.  Baldwin’s genius is to illustrate what he, himself, fears must be the most dreaded form of imprisonment and to project that onto Fonny, to devastating effect.  And yet, even with all of that, Fonny is not crushed.  He has taken agency over the decision.  He’s decided that to be a man, to be a black man, is to work and not to create – as if the two are mutually exclusive.

And in that symbiosis, the artist’s freedom is imbued to the audience, liberating us. 

This hit me on a gut level because it harkens back to a previous post on the mature society.  To create art is to invent; to innovate.  As a sculptor, Fonny’s task is to create anew from each block of raw material.  It is an intellectual task.  And evidently a lofty one, because Fonny has found a certain pragmatism to his resolution.  And in that, Baldwin ultimately reveals that, as African Americans the freedom and liberty of the artist does not often belong to us.  It is not practical.  It is not realistic.  We, so often, don’t even know what it means.  Such is the imprisonment of the mind.  

One of the many beautiful things about the African American community is its resistance against that truth.  Our art is, and has always been deeply resonant the world over.  And I think it’s partially because of it’s insistent defiance of social and cultural attempts at constraint.  It’s universal. Everyone feels constraint at some point.  And art grants us a way out.  Perhaps, it’s because art requires the receiver to filter it through her own experiences, thus making it, at once, the work of the artist and the product of the audience. And in that symbiosis, the artist’s freedom is imbued to the audience, liberating us.  Whatever it’s appeal, art matters to us because it is moving.  Baldwan’s novel is moving.  And Jenkins’ adaptation is affecting.  Each illustrates for us the power of art.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to embrace and enjoy it.