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If ‘Beale Street’ reached beyond the silver screen

KiKi Layne and Stephan James play lovers in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
KiKi Layne and Stephan James play lovers in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Annapurna Pictures

I’d hoped for a different ending, something more definitive and certain, a happily ever after for Fonny, Tish and their son.

If you’ve had the pleasure as I have of reading James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and were lucky enough to find a seat at one of the theaters showing the movie, you might understand why.

Maybe not. Maybe you just see the three of them simply as characters in a book and in this case a movie, the figment of someone’s imagination, in which case, you might not even care.

Another black man behind bars, away from his family isn’t your problem.

But for me, Fonny is as real as any character in a book. He is in a very real sense representative of every African-American boy born and raised in this country, and why, even in this new year, so many of them will end up in our criminal justice system.

Baldwin, my favorite author by the way, published “Beale Street” in 1974, the year before I graduated from high school. The story details Fonny and Tish’s life together, from their shared childhood in Harlem and budding romance to the moment Fonny lands in jail for a rape he didn’t commit, leaving a pregnant Tish to fight — with help from their families — for his release.

The injustice is so pervasive throughout Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of the novel, it nearly suffocates you. Watching I couldn’t help thinking about the seemingly endless and shameful history of black men falsely accused of rape, a charge they pay for with their very lives — literally and figuratively.

I thought too about my conversation in mid-November with attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

In 1972, two years before “Beale Street” was published, Stevenson told me, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons in this country. Today, there are 2.3 million. In fact, 1 out of 3 black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. In urban communities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, 50 to 60 percent of all young men of color are in jail or prison or on probation or parole.

Stevenson believes mass incarceration has fundamentally changed our world and is responsible for much of the hopelessness and despair in poor and communities of color.

“Our system isn’t just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorting around race, they’re also distorted by poverty,” he said. “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”

Here’s the problem with that. Stevenson said, and I agree, the politics of fear and anger have made us believe that these are other people’s problems, not ours.

I see that attitude in the email I receive every time I mention race, police brutality and inequality of any kind. And God forbid I ever mention Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protest.

If only a movement could do for racism what #MeToo has done for sexism.

I left the movie theater Saturday feeling like I’d been beaten up one side and down the other. I felt heavy. Heavy over the way Fonny’s ultra-religious mom and sisters respond to news that Tish is pregnant. Heavy because Fonny, unable to get the justice he deserved, cops a plea and is still in prison when the movie ends. Heavy because, though the movie either doesn’t deal with it or I missed it altogether, his father, Frank, after his employer discovers he’s been stealing from them to help pay Fonny’s legal fees, commits suicide.

But I felt good too. I loved that Tish and Fonny loved each other and I felt that love the moment they appeared together on screen. I loved that Frank and Joseph, Tish’s father, loved their families and felt responsible for them. I loved the way the families counter the false narrative that we African Americans primarily hail from broken, welfare-dependent homes.

If only Beale Street could talk.

One of my favorite moments was when Joseph, trying to comfort Tish, holds his daughter, tells her to breathe and gently kisses her forehead.

It’s too bad that we don’t see enough of that.

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