Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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The Grubers in the Audience

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For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.




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