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‘Timeless, Timely and Necessary’: Barry Jenkins Brings ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Home to Harlem

With his cast and crew in tow in front of a rapturous audience Tuesday night, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins brought his latest film, an adaptation of author James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” to the New York Film Festival for its U.S. premiere at the world-famous Apollo Theater. The setting was all too appropriate.

“James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem. [‘Beale Street’] was set in Harlem. It was filmed in Harlem. The first time it was shown in the U.S. had to be in damn Harlem,” Jenkins said in his introduction.

Members of the Baldwin family were on hand as well, including Trevor Baldwin, who was among those who spoke before the lights dimmed and the picture unspooled.

“‘All they really knew were two darknesses,’” he said, quoting from “Sonny’s Blues,” his uncle’s 1957 short story. “‘The darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.’ As we gather this evening to witness the product of James’ words from yesterday, through the lens of Barry today, with an amazing cast of tomorrows, together creating a contemporary period piece that touches the soul, there is no darkness, because the lights are bright on Beale Street.”

It was the perfect set-up for this lush love story, a tale of both grace and tragedy, formally inspired by the works of filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien but fueled by the burdens borne by black men in a country that — as the character Fonny states with wrenching finality in the film — seems to abhor them with impunity.

Actor Brian Tyree Henry spoke on that point during the film’s Q&A session following the film. His would be the most authoritative voice on the matter, given that his single scene — a haunting display that frankly deserves a place in the supporting actor Oscar discussion regardless of screen time — is wrapped tightly around that very theme.

“It was kind of an out-of-body experience,” Henry said. “I really didn’t remember the cameras being anywhere in the room. It was a scene between [me and Stephan James] talking about what this sorrow is that we carry and this heaviness and weight that we carry. It’s something I think is timeless, timely and necessary, so I had no choice but to say yes.”

Jenkins spoke about the journey of casting the roles of Tish and Fonny, childhood friends who grow up to become lovers and parents, only to see their fortunes dashed when Fonny is wrongfully accused of raping a woman. Tish needed to be played by someone who could exhibit the character’s dual sense of innocence and mature reflection. The role went to newcomer KiKi Layne, marking her feature film debut. “She had that presence within her,” Jenkins said.

In giving the role of Fonny to Stephan James, the director actually went against the grain of what Baldwin had presented on the page.

“There’s a dynamic of colorism in the novel where all of Fonny’s family is very light-skinned, and this is probably the first time in the history of histories that a character is written as light-skinned and cast as dark-skinned,” he said. “But I just felt this thing in his eyes. Most of his performance is through glass and I think for the audience to connect through the lens, through the glass, into the soul, you had to have someone who had this piercing quality.”

But the crowd — which greeted the film with a standing ovation — was perhaps most enthusiastic for Regina King, who stars as Tish’s forthright mother who goes to great lengths to prove Fonny’s innocence. The applause meter shattered when her name graced the screen in the final credit roll. She, too, will no doubt be in the discussion for awards recognition throughout the fall, hot on the heels of her latest Emmy win, for the Netflix series “Seven Seconds.”

“I did not realize how much we as a people, and I’m not saying as a black people, I’m saying as a human people, need a film like this,” King said in her Variety profile as one of this year’s Power of Women honorees. “It’s like a salve.”

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