Moonlight director Barry Jenkins was at the Toronto Film Festival promoting his new movie, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, where he recounted a story that, for black folks, is frustratingly, maddeningly, eye-rollingly too familiar:
So I’m at this party and I was trying to get to my homeboy Justin Simien’s after-party for his show Dear White People. My driver, he had a hard time getting in and out of the valet, because if you pull up and your person’s not there, you’ve got to drive out and circle around. I come out and the valet person is just like, shocked. I’m like, “What’s up?” He’s goes, “Oh, you shouldn’t get in the car with that dude.” I’m like, “Why?” He goes, “Oh, because when I was out here before, he looked all agitated, and I said to him, ‘What’s wrong?’ He goes, ‘Oh, you know, nothing, I’m just sitting around here waiting around to pick up this nigger.’ And then he smiled and said, ‘Oh, and he’s probably going to get nominated for Best Director.’” Subtext: But he’s still just a nigger.
Jenkins was prompted to tell this story to illustrate his film’s relevance to today, “even though it was set in 1973–74.” Baldwin’s fifth novel, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a black Harlem couple, Tess and Fonny, whose future is jeopardized when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, through the machinations of a racist cop, and is sent to jail. The relevance is staggering: Between 1973 and 2015, the U.S. prison population increased from about 200,000 to about 2.3 million people, and though blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 40% of the U.S. prison population.
This dramatic increase in incarceration was a direct result of “an increasingly punitive political climate surrounding criminal justice policy,” i.e. President Nixon’s and then President Reagan’s War on Drugs, as well as President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, all of which disproportionately affected African-Americans. When you take that into account, as well as the prevalence of police shootings of unarmed black men, and If Beale Street Could Talk—as well as nearly all of Baldwin’s writing—is as timely as ever.
And for people of color, Jenkins’ experience transcends time, place, or circumstance. As the Oscar-winner (he shared Moonlight’s Best Adapted Screenplay with Tarell Alvin McCraney) pointed out, he was wearing a $5,000 suit, attending the prestigious Governor’s Awards, was “probably going to get nominated for Best Director”—he was “a person in power” but that power didn’t inoculate him from the realities of the world. “If it can happen to me,” he reasoned, “it can happen to anyone and we’ve got to tell these damn stories.”
Of course he’s right. This sort of thing happens everyday to black people in America: Whether it’s a cab driver, clearly on-duty, refusing to pick you up; or the noticeably brusque service you receive at the hands of a waiter; or encountering a reliance on “preference” in justification of sexual proclivities—hell, I was called the N-word on a dating app just a few months ago. Racism in America has always been and will always be pervasive and omnipresent unless we confront it head on, unless we tell these damn stories.
This is also why I take offense at anyone who claims an issue “isn’t about race,” when race colors literally every aspect of our existence. It’s just more apparent to the people who are victimized by it. The subtext to which Jenkins alludes—that “he’s still just a nigger”—is a very real fear that haunts black people. No matter how successful or exceptional you become, will it ever be good enough, will you ever be good enough? Take the Academy Award, itself the epitome of white excellence.
When Hattie McDaniel went to the 1940 ceremony, where she was the first black person to be nominated for and win an Oscar, she had to sit at her own segregated table away from everyone else, including her Gone with the Wind co-stars. You can count the number of black Best Director winners on one hand: zero; as well as the number of black directors even nominated for the prize: five. If Spike Lee (who is not among the five) gets nominated for BlacKkKlansman or Steve McQueen (who, along with Jenkins, is among the five) for Widows or Jenkins for Beale Street, we can bring out another hand.
To aspire, or to achieve, an Academy Award is to, in effect, aspire to whiteness, which, no matter who you are, as a non-white person, can never be achieved. And so it makes sense for a white man to undermine a black man by calling him—and so cavalierly at that—a term loaded with such history and violence and death. A white man in a subservient role to a black man, in order to feel superior—because he considers it his inalienable right on account of his very whiteness to feel so—has no other recourse.
The N-word is the great American de-equalizer.