Baldwin’s Fonny Never Took The Plea: A Review of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk

Let me begin by saying that Barry Jenkins’s film If Beale Street Could Talk must be seen. It must be supported because it deals with the effect of the mass incarceration industry on the Black family in the United States. The novel is structured in real time, in the year it was published, which was in 1974.

It is narrated by “nineteen year old” Tish Rivers. However, the film distorts two things in the novel. One, the relationship between Frank Hunt and his son Alonzo Hunt, known in the film as Fonny. Two, the fact that although Fonny was incarcerated, he never took the plea offered by the state to supposedly get a shorter sentence. The narrator Tish tells us, in Baldwin’s words about Fonny:

“He swiftly understood that he was between the carrot and the stick but he had to make it clear, finally, that he’d be damned if he’d go for the carrot” (127).

However, in his screenplay, Jenkins writes: “and so…like many of these poor men, Fonny took the plea” (103).

Whereas Baldwin’s novel ends with the question of what happens to Fonny, Jenkins’ screenplay answers this question by claiming that Fonny remains in jail for “four, five years on from the main thrust of the story that’s come before” (103). This is not what happens in Baldwin’s original novel. This is a serious distortion of Baldwin’s original words because it does not reflect the actual motivation and actions of both the Rivers family and the Hunt family. The narrator tells us in the scene between the fathers of Tish and Fonny that “each of these men would gladly go to jail…to save their progeny from the jaws of this democratic hell” (128). Baldwin is recalling the sacrifice within the family that was made by Jonathan Jackson to free his brother from the Marin County prison in California in 1971. It is this kind of sacrifice for his son that Frank Hunt makes that Barry Jenkins’s screenplay misses. Baldwin’s Tish tells us that Frank “ran a tailor shop.” He later “lost the tailor shop and was working in the garment center” (37).

However this is absent in Jenkins’s screenplay, who only identifies Frank as a “garment worker,” which misses the enormous sacrifice Frank made, for Fonny, his wife Alice, and his family so that Fonny could have the opportunity to know what it means to make a living. Jenkins’s screenplay shows the tension between Frank and Alice when Frank slaps her for cursing Fonny and Tish’s baby after Tish’s announcement that she is pregnant. However he does not show the amazing Black father-Black son interdependence in the novel.

Fonny said: “hadn’t been for me, I believe the cat would have split the scene, I’ll always love my daddy because he didn’t leave me” (17). Tish’s memories of Frank is that of a hardworking tailor shop owner who was working with pride to feed his family. Fonny would later do the same. Jenkins’s screenplay shows Fonny’s industriousness: “I load moving vans in the daytime and I sculpt at night” (43).

But the screenplay does not show the source of Fonny’s industriousness in Frank.

In his 1971 interview with Nikki Giovanni, Baldwin made clear to her that we as children raised by Black parents should not underestimate the price, “paid for us” by sacrifices that many Black parents made. Tish’s mother Sharon tells her in the novel: “I swear to you we will win.” In Jenkins’s screenplay Tish’s father Joseph tells Frank: “These are our children and we got to set them free” (68). As in his 1970 letter to Angela Davis, born on this day, James Baldwin expresses his sympathy for her, George Jackson, and Jonathan Jackson who sacrificed his life in order to set his brother free. Jenkins’s Fonny takes the plea and essentially assumes that the “freedom” that Sharon and Alice and Frank talk about is not possible. The “freedom” is for Fonny who was arrested on false charges. He was accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers who, as both Baldwin’s novel and Jenkins’s screenplay shows, was influenced by Officer Bell to identify Fonny in a police lineup as the rapist. What Jenkins’s screenplay shows is that Fonny was influenced by those within the mass incarceration industry, like Daniel, who tells Fonny that he took a plea in order to get a lesser sentence, by saying he stole a car when he actually didn’t. This is akin to what John Potash wrote about Veronica Jones falsely testifying against political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal in order to get better treatment from the police (The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders, p.78). In Baldwin’s novel, Fonny is unfazed by Daniel’s experience in prison, but in Jenkins’s screenplay, after hearing Daniel, Fonny takes the plea.

The scene in Jenkins’s screenplay that was added and not part of the novel is the scene of a young Alonzo who is two or three years old, visiting Fonny in jail. In this scene, Jenkins’s direction reads:

“Tish, standing before a vending machine, holding the hand of a child, we saw plaintively.”

The “vending machine” in this added scene is a metaphor for the mass incarceration industry, that not only does Tish see as non threatening, but she uses it, and teaches her son to use it, when he gives food from it to his father. The scene is intended to evoke sympathy for the family, but betrays the actual message of the novel to fight this industry in order to gain freedom. A more haunting distortion of Baldwin’s message is the prayer that Jenkins writes by Fonny Junior (Alonzo Junior in the script), before they eat the food from the vending machine:

“Thank you God, for the good we are about to eat. And for all of your blessings that we have received.  And for my Daddy” (106).  

This prayer assumes that God is content with Fonny remaining incarcerated years after Alonzo Junior was born, and suggests a false theology that James Baldwin did not promote. In The Fire Next Time (1965), Baldwin writes to his nephew, that

“if the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him” (Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, in Library of America’s Collected Essays, p.314).

In Jenkins’s screenplay, Alonzo Junior was taught an oppressed, not liberating, theology by his parents, which is not what Baldwin himself intended. We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Baldwin’s UNFORGETTABLE February 2nd, 1969 op-ed entitled “The Price May Be Too High,” that was printed when my dad turned seventeen. At seventeen, he was in Jamaica attending Manning School because of the enormous sacrifices that his father, my grandfather made who worked at the Frome Sugar Factory, the way Baldwin’s Frank Hunt worked at his tailor shop, so his son could have a better life. In this op-ed, Baldwin wrote:

“If white people are prepared to blow up the globe in order to maintain that faith of their fathers which placed Sambo in chains, then they are certainly willing to allow him his turn on television, stage and screen…What is being attempted is a way of involving or incorporating the Black face in such a way that the fantasy will be left unchanged and structure left untouched.”

Jenkins’s last scene in screenplay adaptation of Baldwin’s novel leaves the mass incarceration industry “unchanged” and “untouched” in ways that James Baldwin would not have approved of. I am a writer and I have to respect the written word of James Baldwin. In addition to seeing this film, performed by PHENOMENAL ACTORS across the entire cast, we must take the time to read the novel If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. We must appreciate why Baldwin chooses to end the novel with the birth of their child happening at the same time as the transitioning of, of all characters, Frank Hunt. -RF.

This blog was inspired by a conversation with my comrade Abdul-Aliy Muhammad who motivated me to read the screenplay when they said Fonny “took the plea.”