If Beale Street Could Talk – Bringing James Baldwin’s novel to the Big Screen

Academy Award-winning writer/director Barry Jenkins’ first film since the Best Picture Oscar- winning Moonlight is If Beale Street Could Talk, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel — the first English-language feature film based on the work of the author, to whom the movie is dedicated.

Set in early-1970s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected she and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Tish knows that Fonny is innocent, and is mindful that his good friend Daniel Carty (Tony and Emmy Award nominee Brian Tyree Henry) has only recently been freed after an unjust incarceration. While Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) clings to piety and his father (Michael Beach) grapples with feelings of powerlessness, Tish’s earthy father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and fierce older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) are unwavering in their support. Even more anxious to clear Fonny’s name is Tish’s deeply compassionate mother Sharon (Emmy Award winner Regina King), readying to put herself on the line for her daughter and future son-in-law’s happiness…

…and for the couple’s unborn child, whose arrival will herald new joys and challenges. Facing the unexpected prospect of parenthood and holding down a job without her partner at her side, Tish must adjust her perspective on the realities of her existence. She visits Fonny regularly, trying to shore up his spirit even as prison takes its toll. As the weeks turn to months, Tish reaffirms their hopes and resilience, relying on familial and inner strength.

Through the unique intimacy and power of cinema, If Beale Street Could Talk honors the author’s prescient words and imagery, charting the emotional currents navigated in an unforgiving and racially biased world as the filmmaker poetically crosses time frames to show how love and humanity endure.

“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born.

Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy.

Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”
James Baldwin

One of America’s foremost writers for seven decades and counting, James Baldwin (1924- 1987) was a novelist, essayist, activist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

The oldest of nine children, he was born and raised in Harlem, New York City. At age 10, he wrote his first play, which was staged at the public school he attended. At age 13, Mr. Baldwin wrote his first article, “Harlem — Then and Now” for his middle school publication, The [Frederick] Douglass [Junior High] Pilot.

Although he lived for several years on Horatio Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the author would spend much of his adult life not in his native city but rather in France, escaping the racism and homophobia of the United States. In 1986, he was made a Commander of the French Legion of Honor.

Mr. Baldwin’s writing explored race relations, class distinctions, and human sexuality. He began writing for the magazine The Nation in 1947. His first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared in 1953 to excellent reviews. His essay collections Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963) were best- sellers that made him a vital literary voice in the growing civil rights movement — in which he was an active participant, having returned to the U.S. expressly because of the urgency of the cause. He toured the South extensively, meeting with students; he marched in Washington and in Selma; and he was on the cover of Time Magazine.

In response to the turbulence and many imprisonments he witnessed in the 1960s and early 1970s — some physical, others emotional — he wrote the novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). The title is a reference to a street not in the book’s setting of Harlem but rather in New Orleans, home to the blues. Mr. Baldwin dedicated the book to French artist and illustrator Yoran Cazac, with whom he collaborated on the 1976 children’s book Little Man, Little Man, which is also set in Harlem in the 1970s.

Openly gay, Mr. Baldwin was outspoken in condemning discrimination against the LGBTQ community; his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), is about an American abroad coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Among his other notable books are Another Country (1962), Going to Meet the Man (1965), and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). His plays include The Amen Corner (1954) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964).

Statement from director Barry Jenkins

Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Miami, Florida. The Florida State University graduate’s feature film debut, Medicine for Melancholy, was hailed as one of the best films of 2009 by The New York Times and received several Independent Spirit and Gotham Award nominations.

Mr. Jenkins, along with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his second feature, Moonlight, which won Best Picture at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes [Drama]. In addition to earning eight Academy Award nominations, ten Critics’ Choice Awards nominations, six Golden Globe Award nominations and four BAFTA Award nominations, Moonlight won Best Feature and Director at the Gotham Awards and Best International Film at the British Independent Film Awards. The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review named him Best Director, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named him Best Director and the film Best Picture. Mr. Jenkins was also the recipient of a DGA Award nomination and the winner of the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay.

He directed an episode in the first season of the Netflix original series Dear White People. His upcoming projects include an adaptation of National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for Amazon, which he will pen and direct. He is also writing a script for a coming-of-age drama based on the life of the first American Female Olympic boxing champ, Clarissa “T-Rex” Shields.

Mr. Jenkins is a curator at the Telluride Film Festival and a United States Artists Smith Fellow.

I set off in the summer of 2013 to Europe to write an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in the hope that one day I would have the privilege and permission from the Baldwin Estate to make it into a feature film. Every decision I made to bring this project into the world had its roots in a fidelity to the source material, a fidelity to Baldwin’s vision. The characters in Baldwin’s work are drawn in a very specific way, from Tish to Fonny and on throughout their loves and families — Ernestine, the Hunts and, of course, her parents, Joseph and Sharon. Being the first person entrusted to bring any of Baldwin’s novels to the screen in his native tongue, it’s been a goal of mine to draw these characters as close to Baldwin’s imagining as possible.

Between the two relationships at the core of the film — Tish and Fonny, Sharon and Joseph — there’s this lovely rhyme of relationships functioning as the buffer that, for black folks, makes the world worth enduring, that makes the broken promise of the American dream worth striving for.

Transmuting these ideas — thematic, intellectual, emotional ideas — through performers and with the collaborators behind the camera I’ve long called family, I could think of no better way to honor my favorite author, James Baldwin.

“Love brought you here.” My favorite line from Baldwin’s magnificent novel. And the spirit with which we all brought ourselves to make If Beale Street Could Talk.

I first read If Beale Street Could Talk around 2009-10. By that point in my life, I considered myself a Baldwin zealot — but I hadn’t read this book. When I did, I saw as I read it there could be a film; the love story between Tish and Fonny was so pure, so rich, so vibrant. It’s about different versions of love and, in particular, black love in the neighborhood of Harlem that Baldwin grew up in. Yet it’s also in certain ways a protest novel.

In 2013, I just decided that I needed to go somewhere and write the screenplay adaptation. I wanted to bring it to the screen intact, and translate the feeling that I had reading the novel for the first time. I went to Europe that summer with the little money I could find to write Moonlight, which I did in Brussels, and then If Beale Street Could Talk, which I did in Berlin.

I went into that process remembering that Baldwin is revealing much about himself in this book — and that it’s one of the few pieces of literature he wrote from a female perspective. What he was also saying is that there is not just one way to depict a black family.

To me, that was the greatest challenge because those things can exist in opposition to one another. It was a blending of two sides of Baldwin; he was writing about the system of oppression in America threatening the sanctity and purity of Tish and Fonny’s love, and showing us what it’s like for them. So you have the energy we find in The Fire Next Time weaved into a romance.

James Baldwin was a man both within and outside his time. I believe he was writing to the human condition, and as long as there are human beings on Planet Earth the things he’s wrestling with are always going to be relevant.

Voices from Beale Street

Representing the first English-language feature film adaptation of the work of iconic author James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk is a Harlem-set love story that was made on location with the cooperation of Mr. Baldwin’s estate and family. It is the first movie from writer/director Barry Jenkins since his Best Picture Academy Award winner “Moonlight,” and the film is dedicated to Mr. Baldwin.

While Mr. Baldwin’s books have been adapted for television and overseas, his vital work and evocative portrayals of African-American life have not been realized by an American filmmaker until now. The movie version of If Beale Street Could Talk accesses the timelessness and urgency — emotional and cultural — of its story.

If Beale Street Could Talk was first published in 1974. In the text following, key If Beale Street Could Talk cast and crew reflect on the source material and on their participation in bringing Mr. Baldwin’s words to a 21st-century audience:

KiKi Layne: “If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the lesser-read novels in the James Baldwin library. But, once you read it, you see that it is essential Baldwin. This is a love story layered with social commentary. Like all of Baldwin’s work, he is saying something about the black community and essentially using this beautiful love story to comment on the state of race in a specific time and place.”

Brian Tyree Henry: I still walk around with a copy of his The Fire Next Time in my backpack. James Baldwin showed that our words matter and our stories matter, and part of that was showing a kinship between men. His writing strikes chords in everyone; he says the truth, and that’s coming from the rawness of wanting to understand his place as a black man in America. He will refer to Caucasians as “my countrymen” even though he knows the truth that not everyone considers this so. He lays into the injustices, the dichotomies of life in America and how ever-present that is.

Dede Gardner: He insisted that everyone else be a sophisticated enough thinker to accommodate the idea that you can love your country and also be the first person to raise your hand to identify all that’s wrong with it. He had tremendous faith in the ability of human thought, and he expressed it through a kaleidoscope of emotions.

Barry Jenkins: My formal introduction to James Baldwin’s work was Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. These works opened up my worldview of what masculinity was, what black masculinity was. The “aha” moment wasn’t necessarily one particular thing he said; it was the way he expressed himself and the depths with which he investigated things he was studying. His legacy is very important and very rich. James Baldwin matters because he told the truth.

The book was written between 1968 and 1973, and published in 1974. And yet there are conversations in it, scenarios in it, that are still relevant to what’s happening today. That’s why the adaptation is set in the early 1970s. We wanted to honor Baldwin in a way that we felt was without compromise.

Dede Gardner: The Baldwin literature that I have returned to over and over again is his nonfiction. There’s an amazing book of essays he wrote, The Price of the Ticket.

Jeremy Kleiner: James Baldwin’s commitment to telling the truth, and his assertion of authorship and of being in his own category, continues to inspire people today. Through my high school years, I became pretty obsessed with his work. I loved Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, Go Tell It on the Mountain — and I was really taken by his nonfiction writing. I was very moved in particular by his writings in the 1970s; If Beale Street Could Talk is part of that but Baldwin was prophetic in so many ways. He wrote about how America could fulfill its own ideals but he held up the contradictions to light — and warned about what might happen if we cannot address the truth.

Colman Domingo: He has always inspired me, and I stand on his shoulders. James Baldwin is a powerful spirit, not only for African-Americans but for American culture; when it comes to writing about America, he is quintessential. He covers colonization, class, politics and race; he touched on things that we are always trying to grapple with. When trying to deal with society’s ills, there is always a James Baldwin quote to go to.

Adele Romanski: He was one of the most important authors of the last century. He looked at the world around him and questioned it, articulating in a way that others could not so that someone else could empathize.

Barry Jenkins: I think part of Baldwin’s power is his reach; a lot of people can empathize with things he is expressing. You might want to say “universally” but I would take it in another direction; he was so potent because he was drawing from many different inspirations. He lived in Harlem, France, Turkey — and his experiences coalesced into a voice that can only be described as his.

Sara Murphy: He was not afraid to be entirely honest about what he was seeing, about the relationships he experienced. He was brave.

Stephan James: It was humbling to be entrusted by Barry Jenkins with this, and I did not take that for granted any day making this movie. I think of James Baldwin like I think of Shakespeare. He writes in vivid and brutally honest language; that honesty is helpful to artists interpreting characters.

Regina King: James Baldwin is a national treasure whose work will always be studied, and celebrated. When you read his writing, you so feel like you’re a part of it; he is specific in his details. The Baldwin family was so supportive, giving their blessing and visiting the set. I hope we’ve done him proud with If Beale Street Could Talk.