The release of If Beale Street Could Talk, the acclaimed new film based on a novel by James Baldwin, raises the question of why there haven’t been more movie adaptations of Baldwin’s work. The great gay African-American author and civil rights activist was certainly prolific, and his writings received substantial critical praise. Of course, he did offend some mid-20th-century sensibilities by depicting the beauty of same-sex love and exposing the ugliness of racism, but of late Hollywood has become more willing to deal with these subjects. So perhaps we can hope for a film version of his landmark gay love story, Giovanni’s Room (1956), or his gay-inclusive novel of life and love among artists, Another Country (1962). Until those come along, however, here’s a look at the Baldwin works that have been filmed.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young black man and woman in 1970s New York City, very much in love but facing obstacles, chiefly an unplanned pregnancy and a false accusation of rape. Directed by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame, it has received critical accolades and Golden Globe nominations. It’s in limited release now and will be in additional theaters Christmas Day. But this isn’t the first movie based on the novel. In 1998 French director Robert Guédiguian filmed it as A la Place du Coeur (Where the Heart Is), keeping the key elements of the plot but moving the story to Marseilles and making the relationship an interracial one. He also added the twist that the young man is the brother, by adoption, of the woman he loves. The film screened around Europe and South America but apparently was never released in the U.S. It’s not to be confused with the 2000 American film Where the Heart Is, starring Natalie Portman as an abandoned young pregnant woman who takes refuge in a Walmart.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s well-received first novel about three generations of African-Americans, from the South shortly after the Civil War to Harlem in the 1930s, was filmed for the PBS series American Playhouse in 1985. The story is based partly on Baldwin’s life and family, and it has become regarded as a classic. The PBS adaptation, directed by Stan Lathan, has a cast of established and rising stars, including Paul Winfield, Ruby Dee, Alfre Woodard, CCH Pounder, Giancarlo Esposito, and Ving Rhames. It’s available on DVD or for streaming at Amazon Prime.
Another Country has never been filmed in full, but a section of it formed the basis for "Eulogy," a 1963 episode of the Canadian anthology TV series Quest. “Baldwin’s sharp eyes and ears, and his passionate pride in being black, combined with Percy Rodriguez’s restrained performance give the words extra power,” Mary Jane Miller wrote in the 1987 book Turn Up the Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952.
I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary on Baldwin, draws extensively on his writings, including the essays in Notes of a Native Son and the unfinished book Remember This House, which deals with the lives and assassinations of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. “I Am Not Your Negro is not a biography,” The Advocate’s Daniel Reynolds wrote shortly after the film’s release. “It is a lesson, and one that is desperately needed in a world still rattled by police violence, protests, and hate crimes. As Baldwin remarked, ‘History is not the past. It is the present.’” If you missed the film in theaters or want to give it a much-merited repeat viewing, it’s available on DVD or for streaming. See the trailer below.
And in 1989, two years after Baldwin’s death, PBS’s American Masters documentary series profiled him in James Baldwin: The Price of a Ticket. It’s available for streaming too, and you can also read more about Baldwin’s life and work on the PBS website. Watch a preview below.