Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” tells a heartbreaking tale of wrongful incarceration, but it also glimmers with hope. That’s because Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight,” which won best picture at the 2017 Oscars, anchors itself with unwavering relationships: the Rivers family, a loving group determined to keep their pregnant daughter Tish afloat when her boyfriend Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and a steadfast romance between Tish and Fonny even while he is incarcerated.
Regina King and Colman Domingo, who play Tish’s parents, tell CBS News that the film is as centered on the family’s resilience as it is on the injustice of Fonny’s situation.
King’s character, Sharon Rivers, hops on a plane to try to exonerate her daughter’s boyfriend, but the actress told CBS News, “It’s interesting we talk about the great lengths Sharon took to try to exonerate Fonny — there were great lengths that were being taken by the entire family, and I thought about that as we’ve been sitting here talking, that some of that emotion that you’re seeing Sharon have, that’s emotion that she knows when she comes back home and tells her family, after all we’ve done, it’s going to be like being punched. But this family finds a way — always.”
- Barry Jenkins on the empathy inside “If Beale Street Could Talk”
King and Domingo said it was refreshing to read a script where a black family was portrayed in such a light.
“We know it exists, the thing you don’t usually see in the media,” said Domingo. “You don’t see images of sisterhood; you see women tearing each other apart. You don’t see a young woman saying, ‘Unbow your head, sister.’ You don’t see these relationships between a man and a woman. And [the couples in ‘Beale Street’] are not suffering tropes that we’re usually seeing, so it does subvert it.”
King added, “It feels fantastic that we get to display something so many black Americans know actually exists.”
Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, said the relationships in Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” — one of the author’s lesser-known novels — drew him toward the story as a filmmaker.
“What I loved about this one was the blend of his two voices,” he explained. “The one voice is so romantic and obsessed with sensuality, passion and interpersonal relationships, but the other voice is just as passionate about systemic injustice in American society — the judicial system, mass incarceration. I felt like those two things were blended so beautifully in this love story of Tish and Fonny, and so this was the one that grabbed me the most as a piece of cinema.”
The writer/director also talked about the tricky balancing act between the film’s dreamy romance and the ugly injustice. Jenkins said he intentionally went heavy on the romance.
“To me it’s almost like science in high school — for a very brief period I wanted to be a doctor — and different elements have different densities,” he said. “I feel like systemic injustice and mass incarceration has a richer density than the romance, so you need less of that in the narrative to still have balance.”
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