Tag: If Beale Street Could Talk

An Interview With the Stars of If Beale Street Could Talk

Stephan James and KiKi Layne play Fonny and Tish, two young lovers torn apart by Fonny’s false arrest, just as Tish finds out she’s pregnant. The film jumps through narratives, and we watch their love bloom at the same time we watch Tish’s family come together to face the terrible odds of getting Fonny free.

Nothing in If Beale Street Could Talk is new. Black love isn’t new. White cops wielding their power against marginalized populations isn’t new. Finding strength in vulnerability isn’t new. The many injustices of our justice system aren’t new. James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974, and yet the combination of all these experiences—the love and the pain—manages to feel new in the hands of Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.

This isn’t James’s first time in a film that deals with such powerful themes. At 25, he’s already played icons Jesse Owens and John Lewis. But this is Layne’s first feature film, and next year she’ll be starring in another adaptation of a seminal work, Richard Wright’s Native Son. The two spoke about the beauty and urgency of Baldwin’s work, how Jenkins translated that to film, and how unfortunately timely and rare the film’s message is.

GQ: Before this, what was your relationship to James Baldwin’s work?

Stephan James: I had read The Fire Next Time a long time ago. I think I was more familiar with James as an activist, as a poet, but not necessarily his writing work. After I read the Beale Street screenplay for the first time, I went back and read the novel.

KiKi Layne: I hadn’t read any of his novels prior to this. I had just been familiar with all the different interviews and speeches he’d given. Beale Street was the first novel that I actually read, and I read it in preparation for my chemistry read. Since then I’ve read so much more. I mean, he’s definitely one of those authors you read one thing, and then you read everything.

What drew you to this movie? Was it just Baldwin’s story?

Layne: I just love that [Tish is] so vulnerable, and just all this love that’s around her. I thought that was so beautiful, how much Tish and Fonny love each other. I just felt like I hadn’t seen love like that for black people, where like you see these two young black people who are soul mates. That really drew me in, but then at the same time, because it’s James Baldwin, the way that he writes and speaks about all of these different injustices, and how beautifully all of that is interwoven with this really lovely love story… It’s amazing to me, the ability to speak about these really painful things but then still be so uplifted and invested in their love. I don’t know, I just think it’s so powerful how Baldwin and Barry, bringing it to film, were able to communicate these two stories in a way.

James: It was, for me, the prospect of working with James Baldwin and with Barry Jenkins, you know, that marriage. The both of them remind me of each other in a way, where they have this beautiful way of describing love and having an abundance of love amidst tragedy, and do it in such a poetic way. So the prospect of working with them, of working with Regina [King, who plays Tish’s mother], it was on, and it was something that was so important, something that I felt was so timely. I looked at Fonny and the ordeal he was going through, and right before finding out about this script I had learned about the Kalief Browder story. For me it was this full-circle moment where I thought to myself, “Wow, James Baldwin had written these words in 1974, but they mean so much now. They probably mean even more now.” I took it on almost like a responsibility to be the vessel to tell this type of story.

The story is unfortunately resonant almost 50 years after it was written. Why do you think now was the right time to tell it again?

James: James Baldwin has a way of describing our struggle and what we have always resorted to [in order] to get through those moments. Love is the biggest thing, right? Love and hope is how we’ve made it through the most tumultuous times, specifically for the African-American experience. You look at a system that has been made to protect you but has failed us time and time again. You have young men who are really having their innocence taken away from them before they get to realize who they even are as people. To me, just that timeliness and timelessness of the story struck me as important.

Layne: I think with social media, people are more aware of these injustices and have more stories and personal experiences and images that are related to a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with in the film. I think that helps to make it more powerful in this time, where you’re watching Fonny and you’re not just thinking about Fonny. You have all of these other images and men and stories that you could think about that are similar to what he is experiencing in the film. I think that’s what makes it really powerful this time, because I think it can be a lot more personal for many more audience members.

Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. It confirms the director as one of the most talented working today, writes Caryn James.

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After Moonlight won best picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, director Barry Jenkins used his leverage to bring a long-standing dream of his to life: to adapt James Baldwin’s emotionally potent 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.

It’s easy to see why Jenkins was so drawn to the story, of a young black couple whose romantic dreams come crashing up again the powerful reality of white society. Jenkins’ approach, here as in Moonlight, mirrors Baldwin’s own, using a poetic style to reveal harsh social truths. His film is lush and ambitious, its theme of racial bias as relevant now as it was when Baldwin’s novel first appeared. The film is also too pretty for its own good at times, and more compelling in parts than as a whole. But at its best it confirms Jenkins as one of the most talented film-makers working today.\He sets up the contrasts in his story at the start. Set in the 1970s in New York’s Harlem and Greenwich Village neighbourhoods, Beale Street introduces its main characters in a lyrical scene, as an overhead shot views them walking in a park on a beautiful autumn day. Tish (KiKi Layne) is 19 and Fonny (Stephan James) is 22. Both are fresh-faced innocents who gaze into each other’s eyes and say they are ready to face the world together. From this swoony, idyllic flashback we cut to a scene of Tish looking at Fonny through the glass of a prison visiting room, telling him she is pregnant.

Tish is the narrator, her brief voiceover recurring now and then. Flashbacks reveal the earlier days of their romance, and the story moves fluidly ahead, as Tish talks to a lawyer and tries to get Fonny out of prison. James Laxton, the cinematographer who created the cool, deep blue palette for Moonlight, presents a warmer look in Beale Street, infusing the film with glowing colours against a darker background. Like those rich colours, Fonny and Tish’s relationship remains strong even as they lose their innocence.

We eventually learn why Fonny is in prison. A belligerent white policeman, whom we have seen threaten him, later arrests him for raping a white woman, although Fonny was nowhere near the attack. Historically, the accusation resonates with more than a century of such wrongful charges against black men, particularly in the US South.

At the start and again at the end of the film, Jenkins includes photos of black men being arrested, beaten and forced to their knees by white police officers. “The system has been rigged and the courts see it through,” Tish says near the end. Jenkins lets these moments land without overplaying their social purpose. The contemporary resonance and allusion to the Black Lives Matter movement are so apparent, he doesn’t need to make them explicit.

Jenkins has not created a message film, but one about love and family that also conveys a message. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), her father (Colman Domingo) and her older sister (Teyonah Parris) are unfailing in their support. King is especially poignant, her face capturing quiet strength and compassion. When Tish confides that she is pregnant – the last thing any of them needs under the circumstances – Sharon gathers the family for a toast. “We are drinking to new life,” she says, an embrace of the future that in no way denies her awareness of the difficulties her daughter will face.

All the actors are convincing, even in the close-ups that Jenkins often turns to and that require such honesty for the camera. King is the most heartbreaking, because her performance reveals complexities even beyond the layered character Jenkins’ script has given her.

Adding to the story’s contrasts, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a shrew who tells Tish, “I always knew you’d be the destruction of my son.” His father (Michael Beach) and Tish’s are old neighbourhood friends who commiserate, at times too bluntly, as if for the film’s viewers and not themselves, about how difficult it is to be a black man trying to get ahead. And with just a couple of scenes, Brian Tyree Henry adds to his list of terrific supporting roles (including one in Steve McQueen’s latest, Widows) as a friend of Fonny’s just released from prison.

Despite the close-ups and the sympathetic characters, a distant, cerebral beauty underlies the film. The camerawork and production design are so lovely they can be distracting. In the scene that introduces Tish and Fonny, the mustard yellow in Fonny’s shirt is echoed in Tish’s coat and in the turning leaves on the trees, all captured in the overhead shot. The romantic look feels a bit too calculated, just as the strings that sometimes soar on the soundtrack are a few levels over the top. Impassioned moments stand out – Fonny yelling at Tish from behind the prison glass that he is going to die there – yet overall there is an almost austere tone, unlike the emotional pull of Baldwin’s novel.

Whatever its weaknesses, If Beale Street Could Talk, only Jenkins’ third film, is a strong addition to a distinctive body of work. Anyone who became aware of him with Moonlight might want to catch up with his first film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, a lyrical little gem about a night-long date in gentrifying San Francisco. It was evident from the start that Jenkins’ commanding voice and graceful style are like no other director’s.

★★★★