“If Beale Street Could Talk” cast members Stephan James, left, KiKi Layne, Regina King, and the film’s Academy Award-winning, director Barry Jenkinsin in the Essence.com press room
Image: Bennett Raglin (Getty Images)

Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) has tackled James Baldwin’s tragic, yet beautiful tale, If Beale Street Could Talk. This is the first time any of Baldwin’s work will be adapted into film in the English language. Jenkins’ goal was to keep the integrity of Baldwin’s genius but make sure the film didn’t feel like literature. The theme of the book is love, passion and the airing of dirty laundry in the black family dynamic.

During a screening at Essence Festival, after Jenkins shared two 8-minute clips of Beale Street, he told the audience, “The sad reality is, this book was published in 1974 and it’s still relevant now. The system is still the system, so we leaned in.

Jenkins continued, “James Baldwin was raised in Harlem, so he knows how we speak and we didn’t want to shy away from that in translating this book to screen.”

And when you translate a written work into a visual work, you’ve got to make sure the actors you choose can portray what’s needed. That’s why Barry chose Regina King, Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry, Kiki Layne, Aunjanue Ellis and more to carry the depth of this film.

Jenkins said, “I tend to not have a face in my head when I’m writing a script or when I first start casting. In Moonlight, we were lucky because nobody knew who anyone was so we could cast whoever we wanted and I tried to approach this the same way. Who is going to reveal themselves as Fonny and Tish?”

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He continued, “With the precipice of love so early in these characters lives, we needed to have people we saw on-screen to be tender, have that nervous energy, but still know each other. Stephan and Kiki had that together.”

Stephan James said, “With such beautiful nuances, when I first read the script, it reminded me of Romeo and Juliet. That love is the center of this film. Fonny and Tish know each other, they are so close.

“Love is the biggest takeaway. This film is born in tragedy,” James said. This movie will show you all that life can take you through, dragging you through the mud and still there’s love on the other side.

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“I appreciate being able to see us on-screen and be different,” Regina King said. “We don’t get to see stories like this in the theater or on the TV. These stories exist in our lives, but we don’t get to see them.”

Jenkins decided to tell the audience a little anecdote about King’s impact in the film, “We showed this movie in Brooklyn at Court Street and there’s a moment late in the film where everyone is wondering, who is going to Puerto Rico to solve this thing and of course, it’s got to be momma. And we cut to the shot of Regina King getting off the plane and everybody in the theater was like, ‘Oh shit! There she go!’”

King’s maturity and vitality lead to her getting the role. “You know she’s going to translate that in the film,” Jenkins shared.

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“People will leave this movie feeling good. You’ll leave feeling loved on,” King said.

I can’t wait to see how Barry Jenkins’ genius translates in this Baldwin adaptation.