With its release in New York City and Los Angeles this weekend, Barry Jenkins’ latest masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk, is already critically-acclaimed. It’s also racked up major award nominations from the likes of the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards.
With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has put together a beautiful, yet tragic, lush love story. Despite the story taking place decades before now, the story told here is just as topical as any other politically-tinged film or television project set in the present day.
The film, like the novel, is the love story of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as Tish and her family race against the clock to gather evidence to free Fonny from prison after he’s falsely accused of rape.
Handled exquisitely and with grace, much of the format of Baldwin’s novel is retained, intertwining the present day situation of Fonny in prison with the story of how he and Tish fell in love — a love that is kind, soft, gentle — and most specifically — Black. The film also stars Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna and more.
Back during its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Shadow and Act spoke with Jenkins and cast members Layne, James, King and Domingo about the film and bringing Baldwin’s powerful work to the big screen.
Shadow And Act: If Beale Street Could Talk is an incredible story and an incredible movie. It’s one of the biggest films of the year. What initially drew you all to this project?
Regina King: James Baldwin. Barry Jenkins. That combination is pretty powerful. When we got that word…
Colman Domingo: We were like “I’m in!” This is somebody [Jenkins] you know who can lift Baldwin’s language off the page. That beautiful, searing, lush language. And it’s paired with a great artist. He brought us in and I feel like we had a great collaboration.
Kiki Layne: The love. I hadn’t seen that before. Having the opportunity to be a part of that…yeah, I was like, “I gotta get this.”
Stephan James: I think the love and just the importance. It struck me as a necessary story to tell, especially when you look at Fonny and the issues of false imprisonment and mass incarceration — things that are so relevant today. It struck me as an opportunity to shed light on stuff like that.
S&A: My most favorite parts in the film were the moments with less dialogue, and it’s the simple facial expressions, simple movements and simple looks that are the most powerful. As a filmmaker and as actors, how did you all delve into those moments?
Barry Jenkins: All of the actors had seen Moonlight, which has basically wall-to-wall silence and these small moments. So I think they understood what it was that myself, the script and the novel were going to ask of them, which was like almost these emotions between the externalized emotions, the expressed emotions. Those are just as important. One place it happened quite a bit was when Brian Tyree Henry showed up as Daniel. There were a lot of times when he and Stephan were having this long 12 minute conversation and the moments when they stop talking, when you see the guard start to lower and go down. I’ve always found those moments to be very rich because they happen in everyday life, but often in films we just see people just talking the whole time, and to me, it’s cinema, not theater.
SJ: A large credit has to go to Barry Jenkins, I think. He has a very special way of letting you see behind the eyes of a character and into one’s soul. There’s so much that’s being said without being said at all. That’s a gift that he has a filmmaker.
RK: This is art to us. This is our art. Everybody there is no certain way and it changes each moment. In every film, there’s scenes that are no longer in the film when you see the final product..but there are these beautiful moments between Colman and I and what I did in that moment is where I am and what i’m thinking in the intimate scenes between myself and Kiki. IT just changes. There’s no certain formula.
CD: You’re so right. And Barry has set such a safe, loving set. It was very simple for us to go to these deep places. Kiki and I, I don’t remember us not being touchy-feely. Immediately that was my baby girl. You know, this is a grown woman, and immediately fell in this safe place to be very affectionate with each other. Me and me wife [Regina’s character], there is a scene of us dancing…we honestly fell into such a comfort and love and safe. I know we were also echoing also people in our lives…like I saw my mom and dad dancing like that…
RK: Yeah..like my auntie and uncle [laughs]!
CD: But we fell into it and he knew what to bring together.
S&A: A Barry Jenkins film isn’t a Barry Jenkins film without being illuminated in color. In Moonlight we see blues and purples, but in Beale Street, it’s more about the greens and reds. How did you reflect the storyline in these colors?
BJ: Just like with Moonlight, we assume stories will look and feel a certain way. For me, that’s not true of my life and that’s not true of the way most people experience their lives. The lives of black folks in America have always been one with strife. But we get together, we hang out, we laugh, we love, there’s all of these big, vibrant emotions. And I felt as if the imagery should reflect that. With source material, this is a very angry novel, and yet, it is a huge celebration of life and love…the pure romance between Tish and Fonny. I thought the movie could contain both these things. It can be this tragedy, but it can also be this lush romance. We wanted to reflect that in these greens, these golds and these reds.
S&A: Although this is a film that’s set years ago, it’s almost like a story that could be ripped from today’s headlines. How important for you is it to tell these stories that are very socially-cognizant of today’s society?
BJ: Extremely important! Part of the power of the novel, and I hope the adaptation, is it was written in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s and takes place in the late ’60s-early ‘70s, and yet, at any moment we could walk off set and experience the things that the characters in this film are experiencing. Just [being] implicit in that statement and that dichotomy just shows we have progressed quite a bit, but there is still much farther to go and I think it is important to tell these.
S&A: What do you hope people take away the most from this film?
KL: I hope people take away from those moments that love will really get you through if you press into that and find those people that you can lean on. For me, I tend to back away when I‘m dealing with stuff and push people away but this film speaks to the power of holding on to people who love you and then letting them love on you and be there for you.
SJ: Yeah, I agree. And just being hopeful. Despite your tragic situation, love is what’s got you here and love will probably get you through.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles now. It will expand nationwide by Christmas.