“One out of every three Black boys and one out of every six Latino boys can expect to go to prison, compared to one of every seventeen White boys.” Dr. Jimilez Valiente-Neighbours, assistant professor for the PLNU’s Department of Sociology, Social Work and Family Sciences, emphasizes this shocking data with anguish. What is the cause of this great divide in numbers—and why is America standing silently by?
In 1974, acclaimed author and social activist James Baldwin published a novel about two African American teens whose love is tested by the faults of the criminal justice system. Forty-five years later, this story appears in theaters as a major motion picture.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” presents issues in the criminal justice system that need to be examined. When Alfonso—Fonny—is accused of raping a woman solely based on the testimony of a White police officer, Fonny is placed in jail where he awaits trial. Due to a lack of legal help and the inability to afford cash bail, Fonny’s loved ones are unable to prove his innocence. Fonny spends his pretrial time incarcerated—eventually serving an innocent sentence after a wrongful conviction and missing the childhood of his son.
After seeing the film, senior social work major Michelle Miranda comments on racial discrimination today in relation to the story at the time of its original publication.
“The ’70s isn’t that far in the past, but when you look at [“Beale Street”], nothing has changed, and it seems like things may have gotten even worse. Yes, we go to school together now, yes, people can get married, but in the big aspect of things, it’s the same,” Miranda said.
“We can point to the sheer numbers of Black Americans that are currently incarcerated and see that it is so disproportionate to their numbers in society to say that there is something very wrong with the way that justice is being carried out today,” said Dr. Lindsey Lupo, PLNU political science professor. “There’s a presumption of innocence that comes along with being White, as compared to this presumption of guilt and criminality that is often associated with Black Americans.”
In light of increasing concern for the morality of America’s criminal justice system, consider attending a showing of Baldwin’s story. Dr. Valiente-Neighbours supports this idea from the perspective of a sociologist: “When people read fiction or attend plays or watch a movie, it helps increase empathy and adds a deeper understanding of the larger picture that’s happening. “Beale Street” is a really important movie. Watch the movie and think about the big questions.”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is still playing in select theaters around San Diego.