A lost pair of lovers were recently rediscovered in a thirty-second silent film titled “Something Good – Negro Kiss.” The footage, which has been newly added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, shows a series of embraces between two black performers, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. The scholar Allyson Nadia Field, who is doing the heroic work of studying the silent era of black film, dates the work to 1898, suggesting that it was intended as a remake of Thomas Edison’s “The Kiss,” which is believed to depict the very first kiss on film. In this sense, “Something Good” reveals a secret, alternative cinematic history. American film, mirroring the stratifications of American society, evolved to distort the sexuality of black men and women, either neutering it entirely or grotesquely overstating it. This recovered footage, by contrast, shows a moment of uncomplicated attraction between black people, with no trace of prank or meanness or midnight-colored paint. Watching it, I want to let my guard down and enjoy the lovely wildness of the couple, whose hips seem drawn close by some law more ungovernable than set direction.
The version of “Something Good” that has been circulating online has been edited to have soaring sound—“Agape,” a track from Nicholas Britell’s score to Barry Jenkins’s new adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” about a young black man and woman who are in love in a difficult country in the nineteen-seventies. I like the anachronism of the music, the way it highlights a fractured lineage between the virtually forgotten kiss in “Something Good” and the project of Jenkins, who is, along with Todd Haynes, among America’s most sensual directors. His project, in “Beale Street” and in “Moonlight” before it, being: to create portraits of black love that are highly stylized but not aloof, politically urgent but not aimed at anything as basic as correcting a stereotype.
“Beale Street” is an undeniably beautiful film. In the very first scene, our lovers, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), glide hand in hand through a park. It is autumn in New York, and nature is conspiring with the young lovers: the yellow of the leaves matches the yellow of their outfits. Jenkins has a symphonic devotion to the wordless visual monologue, delivered through the miracle of the human face. Tish and Fonny are gorgeous in an abstracted, mythological sense, as if he were the first man and she the first woman on earth. Is the movie too beautiful? After seeing it a second time, I wondered whether Jenkins’s commitment to transmitting the big-bang feeling of the Negro Kiss also causes him to shave away the spikes of the original text.
The eighteen-year-old Tish is the narrator of Baldwin’s novel. Through winding, nonlinear flashbacks, she tells us what has happened to her and Fonny. Growing up in Harlem, they were childhood friends. Innocent connection grew into passion. They hope to get a loft downtown, maybe get married. But their plans are derailed when Fonny is imprisoned. A Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers, has falsely accused him of rape, having been fed his name by a white police officer with a personal vendetta. Tish describes how she and her family, alongside Fonny’s father, fight to the bone to recruit funds for Fonny’s legal representation. Tish visits Fonny in prison, where she tells him that she is pregnant. In the voice of Tish, Baldwin chronicles a racial loss of innocence: “Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody—if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.”
Written during the author’s years in Europe, the novel also presents a documentary picture of New York City, or, more precisely, the New York City that poor black people are allowed to live in. The rats are “as big as cats, roaches the size of mice, splinters the size of a man’s finger.” Jenkins’s city, by contrast, is deliberately idealized, manicured, light-dappled. Even the ugliness that is included has been polished to a sheen. At a dinner that Jenkins sets at one of Baldwin’s old haunts in the Village, Tish and Fonny are posed across from each other, as if a version of Chow and Su from “In the Mood for Love,” the film by Wong Kar-wai, whom Jenkins has cited as an influence.
Jenkins takes his protagonists out of the arena of realism and lifts them into an aria of beatific sadness. In Baldwin’s novel, Tish doesn’t think she’s beautiful; she’s darker-skinned than Fonny, and Tish remembers him playfully commenting to his friend Daniel, “Tish ain’t very good looking, but she can sure get the pots together.” The first time the couple have sex, Tish is unmoored. “It hurt, it hurt, it didn’t hurt,” she thinks in the book. “It was a strange weight, a presence coming into me—into a me I had not known was there.” We sense Tish navigating the force of Fonny’s maleness, the gravitational pull of his suffering, which is at least visible in a way hers is not. Onscreen, Tish lets out a sharp breath when Fonny enters her in his damp Bank Street apartment. But her ambivalent narration has been muted; instead, we hear the lofty strings of Britell’s song “Eros,” which is the sound of soul mates merging. The narrative rancor of Baldwin’s novel is tempered, its sexual politics smoothed. The will of each character will be tested by the gross miscarriage of justice, but the film argues that the bond between lovers is unshakeable. Watching “Beale Street,” I felt at once jarred by their hallowed air and eager to cocoon myself within it.
Jenkins is, of course, under no obligation to revere Baldwin’s text. Reverence has produced plenty of lumbering, derivative works of art. And he does find a few places, in “Beale Street,” to transmit the anger in Baldwin’s novel. In one sequence, Tish’s narration of Fonny’s troubles plays over real archival photographs of black men being abused by the police. Layne’s voice, lilting for the majority of the film, is suddenly sharp. In another scene of theatrical pain, Fonny talks with Daniel, played by a knowing Brian Tyree Henry, after Daniel has been released from jail. Daniel didn’t commit the crime he was charged with, but he confessed to it after being cornered by the district attorney’s office. It doesn’t matter that Jenkins has omitted the part of the novel in which we learn that Daniel was gang-raped in prison; torture is insinuated in the heave of his eyes. The room is washed in a darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the film’s palette. Daniel is trying to prepare the bright Fonny for what’s ahead, which is a knottier kind of love. “They can do with you whatever they want,” Daniel tells Fonny, dragging on a cigarette.
There is something torrid in cinema’s ability to overpower the spectator with feeling, and the experience is all the more fraught for black viewers. Baldwin, an avid cinephile, experienced these sensations early, watching “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” as a boy. In the ungovernable transcendence of Bette Davis’s “pop-eyes,” he saw his own eyes, and his mother’s, both distorted and the same. By the time he wrote “Beale Street,” he had made several failed attempts to get his own screenplays produced. His unmade films haunt “Beale Street”; one gets the sense that Jenkins is fingering in the dark for the movie that never was. The aesthetic glory of “Beale Street” sometimes registers as a metaphysical move; it feels like Jenkins, in departing from the tone of Baldwin’s novel, is pushing against the fashionable view of the author as a sexless race prophet. His movie encourages us to remember that, in addition to the essayist critiquing America, Baldwin was a man of real appetites, of real beauty.
In his breathtaking book-length essay on film, “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin acknowledges that the work of adaptation involves “doing considerable violence to the written word.” The violence was necessary, he writes, transformative like what goes on in a forge; transcendent filmmakers don’t shy away from the high temperatures of creation. At the end of Baldwin’s novel, Tish and Fonny’s baby is born wailing; Fonny’s father, whose boss has discovered him stealing money to help pay for Fonny’s trial, kills himself. Jenkins reportedly shot a version of this scene, but later decided to omit it. Had he included it, “Beale Street” would have been vastly different and, perhaps, a better film. It also would have given us more of the pain that we’ve already endured. Instead, inside of Jenkins’s love story, we get, for a moment, to trust.