Is If Beale Street Could Talk Based on a True Story? The Answer Is Complicated

Time—Olivia B. Waxman

The Academy Awards category of Best Adapted Screenplay can contain many layers. Some of this year’s nominees, like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and BlacKkKlansman, are based on books as well as true stories. That is not the billing, though, for the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk — the love story of Fonny, an African-American man from Harlem who is imprisoned after being falsely accused of a rape, and Tish, his pregnant girlfriend who tries to get him out. But Beale Street‘s source material, while not “based on a true story,” gets at a different kind of truth.

Some people who knew Baldwin believe the novel was likely inspired, at least in part, by the true story of one of the writer’s friends, William “Tony” Maynard, Jr., who was falsely accused of murdering a decorated white Marine and spent more than six years behind bars.

One of those believers is Maynard’s lawyer, Lewis M. Steel. Late last year, a few days after I published a piece about the film, he emailed me to say as much. “I have no doubt,” he wrote, that the novel was “a fictionalized version of a murder case I defended.” He acknowledged that he had “no evidence” and “only supposition,” but said that his client, like Fonny, had been “up against a system that cared little about guilt or innocence” and that Baldwin had been “well aware” of the situation. Tony Maynard was freed on bail in April 1974, and the novel came out in June 1974.

Maynard tells me that “of course” Baldwin was, in part, inspired by his real story, in the same way that any writer is inspired by what he observes. “I’m sort of a catalyst for everyone I’ve ever met,” he says, sitting in Steel’s midtown Manhattan office one recent afternoon.

But as it turns out, the debate over whether the story is based on Maynard isn’t as simple as looking for parallels — and the answer to which it leads speaks to much more than one man’s experiences. What happened between Maynard and Baldwin is not just an illustration of how Beale Street’s subject matter can play out in real life, but also a lens onto what is expected of individuals whose personal stories teach others about the world.

Here’s what we do know about James Baldwin and Tony Maynard:

They met around 1960. Their families had lived close to one another in Harlem when Maynard and Baldwin were young, and both later lived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. In that period, Maynard was an aspiring actor who had opened a clothing store with his wife’s brother-in-law. He occasionally helped Baldwin out, as a chauffeur, secretary and body-man. “I’ve known the most august people in many realms of life,” he says, reflecting on that time.

At the end of October 1967, Maynard was arrested for allegedly having fatally shot 21-year-old white Marine Sergeant Michael Kroll, a winner of five battle stars and the Purple Heart, with a sawed-off shotgun seven months earlier, at around 4 a.m. on April 3, 1967, in Manhattan. Kroll had been killed by a suspect who was identified as black, when he intervened after an altercation, which started when a white member of the Navy claimed he had been propositioned by a different black man. Maynard says that at the time of Kroll’s death he had been in the borough of Queens, with his wife’s side of the family.

At the time of his arrest, Maynard was working with a group of jazz musicians touring Germany. Baldwin visited Maynard during his initial time in jail there, writing in the 1972 book No Name in the Street that they hadn’t talked since around the time of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, when they grew apart over a philosophical disagreement; Maynard came to see the civil rights movement as elitist. But Baldwin still considered Maynard “a friend,” he wrote. He worked to arrange payment for legal representation for Maynard, before Maynard’s sister Valerie asked Steel, a white lawyer who worked for the NAACP, to represent her brother.

Having refused the Manhattan district attorney’s offer of a plea bargain, Maynard stood trial in New York three times between 1969 and 1970. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second ended in a mistrial and in the third, in December of 1970, he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, and spent the next few years in and out of solitary confinement as he moved between prisons, including Attica, where he survived the famous 1971 uprising.

In April 1974, in a three-minute hearing, a judge freed Maynard on bail after six and a half years in jails and prisons, because prosecutors had suppressed information about its key witness’s psychiatric history, which made his testimony unreliable. The Manhattan D.A.’s office officially dismissed the case that August.

Maynard’s case got sizable local media coverage because of Baldwin. As the New York Times noted in a front-page story about the case, “An aspiring actor as well as an agent, who counted James Baldwin and William Styron, the novelists, among his friends, Mr. Maynard and the case against him drew wide public attention.”

In Beale Street, Fonny doesn’t have such high-profile people in his network who could go to bat for him. But Steel is not the only person to notice the similarities between that story and what Maynard went through.

When asked whether the novel was based on or inspired by what happened to Maynard, David Leeming, Baldwin’s friend for 25 years and personal assistant from 1963–’67, told TIME via email, “Yes. To some extent.” In his book James Baldwin: A Biography, Leeming describes the novel as a “fictionalization” of Baldwin’s literal and metaphorical concerns about American prisons. He also identifies a character in the novel as having a “real-life version” in Maynard’s sister Valerie, who is a successful artist. Two of her sculptures were borrowed for use in the Beale Street film. (Its director and screenwriter, Barry Jenkins, did not respond to a request for comment on that set-dressing choice.) The Baldwin estate chose not to comment for this story, though a representative did casually suggest, when asked about true stories that may have inspired Baldwin as he wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, that I should go look up Maynard’s story.

Baldwin began writing Beale Street while Maynard was behind bars, and amid a significant shift in American policing. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call for a “War on Crime” in 1965 launched an unprecedented federal investment in local police departments. Deadly riots fueled by racial tensions in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles later that year, and in Detroit and Newark in 1967, convinced lawmakers to double down on a strategy of policing that was based on the presupposition that young black men bore responsibility for the bulk of the nation’s crimes.

“The strategy of policing shifts from responding to actual crime to hunting for potential subjects,” says Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime and professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. “You don’t need to necessarily be doing something to raise suspicions.”

In Maynard’s case, police said the suspect would be a 5′8″-tall black man between the ages of 18 and 22, “who looked like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Steel recalls in his memoir. Meanwhile, Maynard was in his 30s and just over 6′ tall.

Baldwin called this policing strategy “political persecution” in a letter he wrote in 1968 about Maynard’s case, now in the collection of the author’s papers at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “The black man is not a man like other men,” Baldwin wrote. “This means for his own sake, and for the sake of society, he must be corralled and controlled.” Black men like Maynard, who defy “the societal dictum which caused you to be born in the ghetto in the first place, and which states that you shall remain there” are particular targets, he noted. And that Maynard had married a white woman — at the time he was getting to know Baldwin, he was married to a model named Mary Quinn — made him “guilty of the very greatest American heresy,” which police seemed to view “as an attack on all that is sacred.”

But while Baldwin was certainly paying attention to Maynard’s case, it’s ultimately not clear what role that attention played in the conception of Beale Street. After all, the author was also trying to help in any way he could with such “political persecutions” of people like Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton and Angela Davis, according to Leeming. He also railed against prisons on The Dick Cavett Show in early September 1973, and had tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a chorus of singer-activists like Lena Horne and Nina Simone to tour America’s prisons.

Valerie Maynard, for one, sees no link. Not only was her brother a decade older than the novel’s protagonist, but there is nothing unique about a black man going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, she says. And, she points out, referring to the disproportionate amount of time black people in the U.S. spend in prison compared to white people, stories like Beale Street‘s have been “multiplied by millions.”

Indeed, in the year the novel If Beale Street Could Talk came out, fewer than 300,000 Americans were in prisons and jails. In 2016 — despite some improvements in legal resources, police procedure and investigation technology — that number was 2.2 million, according to the advocacy group the Sentencing Project. Experts say African Americans are more likely than whites to be wrongly convicted of murder, sexual assault and rape, as well as drug crimes.

“It’s only gotten worse,” says Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project. “The only thing I can say is better is the understanding that innocent people are in fact convicted.”

It’s hard to determine exactly how many convicted defendants are innocent. “You only know the ones that come to light, and there’s every reason to believe that most of the worst cases don’t,” says Samuel Gross, co-founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “The exonerations we know about most are ones connected to the civil-rights movement. They were most likely to get the attention, work and help that would result in ultimately clearing the defendants.”

The closest he has come to finding a number is through his 2014 study of people on death row between 1973 and 2004, finding that about 4.1% of them are innocent. Of those, about 1.8% have been exonerated. Of the 2,372 exonerations in the Registry as of Feb. 15, nearly half of the defendants are black and 39% are white.

Exoneration isn’t the end of a defendant’s experience. And evidence from that period of Maynard’s life shows that Baldwin did in fact try to tell his story — just not explicitly with If Beale Street Could Talk.

As soon as Maynard was released, Steel began pushing Baldwin to write a non-fiction book about what Tony had gone through. It was tentatively planned under the title Upon My Soul, inspired by an exchange recounted in No Name in the Street, in which Maynard swore “Upon my soul, I didn’t do it,” and Baldwin responded “Upon my soul, we’ll get you out.” Steel recalls the three of them meeting in a Manhattan restaurant to discuss the project.

“That Tony was going to get a regular job was not high in the possibilities,” says Steel. “We had to do something to create some kind of living for him and the obvious thing was Baldwin writing a book.”

The book never happened, though an outline for it can be found within Baldwin’s papers. In those records, Baldwin describes Maynard as “a landless aristocrat, a dreamer, turned hustler.” Baldwin was too swamped with other projects to devote the time necessary to getting Maynard to open up. The idea of entering a contract requiring him to do so “terrified” him. Maynard is “a very arrogant, lonely, ingrown boy — also in his relationship to me, at least, a very loyal one: indifferent as a driver, wretched as a secretary,” Baldwin wrote in a Mar. 7, 1975, letter to his editor Jay Acton. “I need Tony’s confession…the confession of a certain private species of heart-break, isolation, pride, and despair.”

As his biographer Leeming later put it, “If Beale Street could talk, so much could be told, so much could be learned. But in this case it would not talk. Tony Maynard had been hurt too badly; he chose withdrawal rather than liberating blues. “

Maynard, who now prefers to go by the name Djata Samod, acknowledges that Baldwin’s insights had truth to them. He does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He has not sought a conventional life of work; “I never desired one. It’s not that I couldn’t, it’s just that I wouldn’t,” he says. Steel describes himself as a “caretaker” of sorts for Maynard, giving him about $1,000 a few times a year, perhaps out of a feeling of white guilt, he writes in his memoir. Whenever cash came in, Maynard admits he’d go traveling. Steel points out that he bought a sailboat that sank and a race car that he crashed. Money, Maynard says, is meant to be spent.

Steel hasn’t given up hope on the Baldwin novel turning into a road to stability for his client, via visibility for his story. If Beale Street Could Talk has grossed more than $14 million as of Feb. 20, according to domestic box office sales estimates.

And though Maynard is still reluctant to open up completely, now he wants people to know what happened to him. “I think at that time I didn’t even want to tell [Baldwin] my story, and now I want to,” he says, sitting in his now 81-year-old lawyer’s office, underneath a portrait by Valerie Maynard — the image of a man captioned What can I do about all this injustice. Maynard is 83 and his eyesight is getting worse by the day. After years of living out of his Jeep, he says now spends most of his time indoors, in an apartment in the Bronx with his ex-wife. For a man who was in and out of solitary confinement, the experience feeds an element of déjà-vu. He attributes his shakiness when he walks to simply “living inside.”

And yet, though those aspects of his personality are irrelevant to guilt or innocence, Leeming writes in his biography of Baldwin, “Maynard was a type for whom even — perhaps especially — the white liberal establishment would have little sympathy because he gave none of the reassurance of the ‘successful’ black.” Baldwin acknowledged the issue in a letter to Acton, writing that even he himself was a “slave” to the system and its expectations. “There is no way for me to not pay my taxes,” he wrote. “I am, therefore, an accomplice if only because I accept that I am part of a system which I must manage to outlast, outwit.” Maynard has chosen to live outside of the system as much as possible.

“Baldwin had it right, that [Maynard] is an outsider, a loner,” Steel says. “Ironically, my bet is it helped him survive — in prison, in his Jeep — so you don’t have to deal with the horrible racism that is ever-present in life. When he got out of prison, he wandered the world and let no one control him again.”

And it may have been easier for Baldwin, who died in 1987, to use a fictional character to tell a story about criminal justice, a story the protagonist of which would have to bear much weight. After all, a book doesn’t have to be “based on a true story” to contain truths. Baldwin, who described his role in the world as “public witness to the situation of black people,” knew that well.

“[T]he world is full of beaten prisoners, and very few of them can speak,” Baldwin wrote in his outline for the last section of Upon My Soul. “Whoever can speak must speak for all the others. Insofar as he can speak, he is speaking for the others.”