The final days of filming writer-director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” were dedicated to moments that foreshadowed its entire plot: Having run into the recently incarcerated Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) on the streets of Harlem, the struggling artist Fonny (Stephan James) invites his friend back to his apartment for dinner, to the chagrin of his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne). Over beers and talk of Fonny’s struggle to gain acceptance in a white society, Daniel offers what Henry calls a “war cry” that was “basically a warning to Fonny that this could be you one day.” Unfortunately, he was right.
HENRY: “Barry was pretty amazing and poetic when he did that scene because I forgot that there were cameras. There are moments where you see Daniel reflecting and smoking a cigarette and I really don’t remember that Barry had set up equipment there. You could not see any of the crew or the director or the ADs. They would literally be outside the room. He would just let us go and have the conversation and it would be so intimate and so personal. Barry didn’t make us run it that many times, but he definitely gave us the space to explore it and just drop in and really have that conversation.
“The weight of it all was pretty amazing; how he let us go and talk about incarceration and what that means to being a black man in America. Even though the film is set in the 1970s, what Daniel is talking about with Fonny could be any black man in this country today. It could be me having a conversation with my nephew. It could be me having a conversation with my best friend. Daniel is the story of so many people of color — of so many black men in this country just experiencing this strife.
“There were moments where it got a little hard for me to continue because the rage would build up and the sorrow would build up because everything he’s saying is the truth. Daniel has just been released from jail. The clothes on his back are pretty much the last thing he wore. I wanted his costume to be the worse for wear. You could see that he didn’t shave and you could see the bags under his eyes; the kind of heaviness of this man. He’s walking on the street because he misses his freedom. He’s walking on the street and he’s seeing the sun. And then, through that, he sees his best friend, too.
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“I didn’t really try to over-study the script or over-think it. I just wanted to sit down at this table with my friend and discuss what our lives were like. I didn’t know what their apartment looked like. Even looking at the pieces of artwork that Fonny puts together when we enter? I pretty much improvised that moment because it was, this is what he has. … You can tell they don’t have a lot of money; they’ve got the bathtub near the table.
“We filmed the street scene in the neighborhood I live in in Harlem and the apartment scene in Yonkers. The great part about Harlem is that the essence of Harlem is still very much the same as it was back in the 20th century. It was really cool to see the liveliness of that street and see the afros and the floral prints and the polyester and the stylishness of that time that we possessed as a people being alive on that street. But if you shifted the camera three inches, you’d see the brand new Whole Foods. Let’s not forget about that part.”