If Beale Street Could Talk Gets Religion

Claude Atcho

If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, is a visually stunning and emotionally haunting story about love in an unjust society. The film follows Fonny and Tish, two young lovers in Harlem whose plans for life and marriage are destroyed when Fonny is falsely accused of a serious crime and imprisoned. While the film clearly centers on the sustaining power of Fonny and Tish’s love, it also makes a few intriguing choices that paint a picture of authentic faith in an unjust world.

For Christians, one of the enemies of authentic faith is self-righteousness. Christian faith, at its most authentic, is absent of any prideful pretense of self-righteousness or moral superiority; it simply clings to God on the meritorious grounds of God’s grace in Christ, not the personal piety found in self. As Jack Miller, the revered Presbyterian minister, would often say, “Grace runs downhill”—a colloquial way of repeating the Bible’s claim that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Authentic faith is a central theme of the film adaptation of Beale Street, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). Quite early, we learn the news that exacerbates the pain of Fonny’s unjust imprisonment: Tish is pregnant with his child. Following Baldwin’s novel, Jenkins contrasts authentic faith with self-righteousness through the respective responses of Fonny and Tish’s mothers to the news of Tish’s pregnancy. Both mothers, in their own way, turn toward God. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) breaks out the good brandy, declaring “this is sacrament.” But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a devout Christian described in the novel as a “sanctified Holy Roller,” reacts to the pregnancy by quoting Scripture to condemn Tish. She stands in Tish’s face and vocalizes the opposite of a sacramental blessing: “The Holy Ghost will cause that child to shrivel in your womb. But my son will be forgiven. My prayers will save him.”

This crucial moment contrasts authentic faith and self-righteousness. Fonny's mother, steeped in self-righteousness, weaponizes Scripture to curse her grandson in the womb while declaring that her prayers will save her son. It is the pretense of her moral superiority that leads her to curse, rather than celebrate, her own grandchild.

Against the backdrop of self-righteous faith, displays of authentic faith shine all the brighter. Sharon, who is seemingly unchurched, speaks a blessing over the child the best way she knows how—celebrating with brandy as a sacrament. In this tender act, described in religious terms, we see the simple faith of someone who knows they are not a religious saint, but seeks to thank God for his gifts nonetheless. Sharon’s blessing shifts her family’s attitude from worry to celebration. Where self-righteous faith can only point out faults from the high perch of spiritual arrogance, Sharon’s act of simple faith spreads a humble gratitude that is contagious.

Against the backdrop of self-righteous faith, displays of authentic faith shine all the brighter.

In the novel, Baldwin emphasizes the grotesqueness of hypocritical, self-righteous faith in Fonny’s mother. But in the film, Jenkins inserts several moments of authentic faith, including Tish’s ordinary moments of prayer before meals. These simple acts may seem trivial, but they are emblems of authentic faith. That Tish (KiKi Layne), under no delusions of her own sainthood or moral superiority, still holds to prayer can be understood as authentic faith—an approach to God that is rooted in his kindness, not one’s personal goodness.

These moments are subtle, pivotal ways in which Jenkins breaks from Baldwin’s novel in order to portray authentic faith in an unjust world. Baldwin paints a cautionary critique of self-righteous faith, while Jenkins constructs a compelling picture of authentic faith that is attainable for those humble enough to carry no pretense of their moral perfections. In Jenkins’ rendering of Beale Street, grace indeed runs downhill.

Faith, in its self-righteous and authentic forms, is so central to Jenkins’ Beale Street that it bookends the film. The movie begins with an imprecatory curse of Tish and Fonny’s unborn child. It ends with a prayer of blessing offered by this same child, now a toddler visiting Fonny (Stephan James) in prison. Before the family shares a snack together, the boy insists they “say grace.” And so the film is framed by a religious curse calling God to judge another (self-righteous faith) and a religious plea for God to show mercy (authentic faith). Much like the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Beale Street presents us two forms of faith in order to show the beauty of a faith rooted not in self-righteousness, but in the grace of God.

Absent from the novel, but present in the film, this final prayer offered by Fonny and Tish’s child shifts the narrative from tragedy to one of hope, even in the midst of injustice. Jenkins breaks from the novel to show the child, cursed by the voice of self-righteous faith and deprived of his father by an unjust society, unexpectedly clinging to God through authentic faith.

It is the child’s faith expressed in prayer that fills his parents—particularly Fonny, who is taken aback by the prayer—with God-centered hope. In this way, the film, like the Christian vision of the world, is honest about tragedy and injustice as brutal powers at work in world, while remaining hopeful in the God who gives grace to the humble.

Topics: Movies