How 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Portrays the 'Communal Nature of Injustice' (Guest Column)

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'If Beale Street Could Talk' (Inset: Bryan Stevenson)

Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, reflects on mass incarceration and the lives it affects, as seen through Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's text.

When James Baldwin published his stunning novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, in 1974, there were fewer than 300,000 people in American jails and prisons. Today, 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. In racially segregated communities of color with high concentrations of poverty, there is an expectation that more than half of all young black men will be imprisoned by the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. Many will be falsely accused, wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced, devastating families and communities, and making Barry Jenkins’ compelling new film both timely and necessary.

Our nation’s abusive deployment of so-called "justice systems" to menace and burden black communities predates mass incarceration. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made any free black person in the North accused of having escaped slavery vulnerable to arrest, kidnapping and enslavement. After emancipation, the presumptive identity assigned to black people — "slave" — was replaced with a new presumption — "criminal." 

At the end of the 19th century, the private industry's demand for free labor was met through convict leasing, a carceral system that historians have rightfully described as "worse than slavery" or, as Douglas Blackmon titled his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name. Tens of thousands of innocent black people were imprisoned for non-criminal, racially specific "offenses" created to sustain this brutal regime.

Throughout the 20th century, law enforcement officials actively supported racial violence against black people, permitting and often participating in extra-legal lynchings and mob violence and brutally enforcing white supremacy laws. Millions of African-Americans fled the American South as refugees and exiles to the Beale Streets of the North and West. 

Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright created a literary landscape that animated the traumatic relationship between black communities and a criminal justice system that was not only oppressive but also predatory. In Beale Street, James Baldwin deepened our understanding of the familiar injustice story by dramatizing the collateral and familial consequences of an unjust accusation.

Injustice is never singular. A false allegation, wrongful conviction, or unfair sentence has the power to wound and traumatize families, communities, and anyone implicated by a shared identity. As a black child in the rural South, every time I heard a story about the unjust mistreatment of people in my community, I found it impossible to ignore the threat to my own security. These real life narratives diminished my hope and place in the world.

When Mr. Baldwin conceived the plight of Fonny, the young black sculptor in his novel, he understood the sordid and painful legacy of false accusations of rape against black men. But Baldwin tells the story through Tish, a 19-year-old female protagonist who is in love with Fonny and carrying their child. It is through the refracted pain of Fonny's loved ones that we come to understand the agonizing injustice of his incarceration. Mr. Jenkins' poetic interpretation of the novel meditates on the communal nature of injustice and the familial consequences of oppressive criminal justice policies with rare insight and understanding. 

The rage, despair and anger that emerge when a family is forced to navigate devastating injustice in the "world's greatest democracy" is at the heart of Mr. Jenkins' brilliant screenplay. Constant injustice can distort your faith, corrupt your capacity for logic, and compromise your willingness to continue playing by the rules. Repeated injustice fuels violence within families and communities and provokes the very criminality the system puntatively seeks to prevent. In Baldwin's novel, Fonny's father ultimately commits suicide. Mr. Jenkins' film explores with rare nuance and honesty the pervasive psychic burden of constant racialized inequality imposed by our history of racial injustice.

In one of the film's most powerful scenes, a recently released Daniel Carty, played by the talented Brian Tyree Henry, sits down with Fonny (Stephan James) to talk about the burden of blackness in a world so comfortable with racial bigotry and bias. Their mournful mood and the agonizing weight of their conversation feels familiar to many people of color.

Contemporary discussions of mass incarceration and police violence tend to discount or ignore the pain and suffering of mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and lovers when black men are the targets of criminal justice abuse. I've sat with parents and children of incarcerated and condemned people and witnessed how their anguish and grief is disregarded. Regina King's wrenching performance as Tish's mother is rightfully generating Oscar buzz because she so compellingly portrays the complexity and enormity of maternal grief in the face of an unjust system. 

Over the last 25 years, the number of women sent to jail or prison has increased more than 600 percent. Seventy percent of the women sent to prison over the last quarter century were single parents of young children whose lives were forever changed. A recent study by FWD.us found that nearly 113 million Americans have an immediate family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated. The study found that 60 percent of people surveyed in African American and Native American communities have experienced the incarceration of an immediate family member.

We need to reckon more thoughtfully with the damage created by America's unjust, excessive and unfair criminal justice system. There is much to be learned from the stories of loved ones, families and communities who are not themselves incarcerated but nonetheless are very much imprisoned by what they hear, see and experience on the Beale Streets of this nation.

Thousands of heartbroken mothers, fathers, siblings, lovers, spouses and children whose loved ones are wrongfully incarcerated or unfairly imprisoned will see themselves in Mr. Jenkins' compelling new film. They will recognize both the extraordinary love and the terrible agony of what happens all too often in this country. Beale Street speaks eloquently and urgently with a raw power to move those who hear it to value justice more dearly. We can only hope that all of America’s neighborhoods will watch and respond.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Just Mercy and a professor of law at New York University School of Law.