NYFF: Barry Jenkins' 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Premieres at Harlem's Apollo Theater

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Regina King and Barry Jenkins

The 'Moonlight' director talked about the enduring relevance of the setting for the film, which is based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, while the movie's stars revealed how they became part of the project.

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins' latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, begins with a quote from James Baldwin, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, about how every city has a Beale Street. For Jenkins, the titular street is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s, when the story is set.

“It’s a place where black folks can take solace and build a community. I think if Beale Street could talk, it would say so many things about what it’s like to be black in America,” Jenkins told The Hollywood Reporter.

“Whether that’s in Miami, Florida; Harlem, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana, there are all these hubs where people come together and try to figure out how to best navigate the systemic everything of what black folks have always faced in this country,”

The movie premiered on Tuesday night at another historic hub, the Apollo Theater, as part of the New York Film Festival. The film follows young couple Tish and Fonny and shows how the bonds of family and love can conquer even the darkest situations. Jenkins wrote the script in 2013 on the same European trip on which he wrote Moonlight, even though, at the time, he hadn’t met the Baldwin family or secured the rights to the novel.

When casting the film, Jenkins explained that he views the process as a meritocracy and any actor has the ability to come in and claim a part. He named Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight as a prime example of that, but it also happened again for him on Beale Street with KiKi Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny.

Even though Baldwin wrote the character of Fonny as lighter-skinned, Jenkins says James embodied the essence of the part. “I can’t say enough good things about Barry,” James said. “He’s so thoughtful and patient and he really pays attention to the nuances of things. … I hope we make 100 more films together.”

The movie marks Layne’s first feature, and Jenkins says she had the right mixture of innocence and maturity to portray the character in the moment while also doing the voiceover reflecting on her experiences. Layne initially heard about the movie through a friend.

“One of my friends was auditioning for the male lead, and he asked me to be his reader,” Layne told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I was like, wait, I need to be auditioning for this.”

After the screening and panel discussion, the audience shouted and begged for Layne to take a special moment onstage since she hadn’t said anything yet, and she just shared her gratitude for being with the cast onstage.

Colman Domingo, who plays the family patriarch, initially auditioned for a different role but got a call three days later that he’d be taking on the working-class family man, a type he’s familiar with from his own life.

“My step father, who had a second-grade education and sanded hardwood floors, would tell me when I would go work with him in the summers, ‘I don’t want you to ever work with your hands, I’m doing this so you don’t have to. You go to school. You go to college,’” Domingo said. “All his sweat, his tears, his dreams are in me. These men who don’t get the limelight and the stage. They’re the most interesting men to me. Those men are the reason why I’m here.”

For Brian Tyree Henry, who plays a friend of Fonny's, spoke onstage after the screening, which received an extended standing ovation. He mentioned that the movie felt important to him as a resident of Harlem (although this was his first night at the Apollo).

“I knew it was very special, something I knew needed to be said, needed to be done,” Henry said from the stage. “I knew that it was a place in history and time that we were about to see black love in a way we had never seen it before. I think about my younger self looking at movies and knowing that I’d never seen or experienced a black love like this ever onscreen. It just is a humbling experience and helps me realize why I’m amongst this number and how far we have to go, how much we can do.”