Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is the new movie from writer/director Barry Jenkins. Set in early-1970s Harlem, the story focuses on Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) , a couple that’s madly in love.
Tish becomes pregnant about the same time Fonny is sent to prison on charges he raped a woman. Desperate to prove his innocence and get him back and work to get a lawyer for him. Through all this it’s the power of her love for Fonny that pushes Tish forward, never losing hope that they will be together.
The movie goes wide this week with after enjoying success in limited release for the last couple weeks.
Tish and Alfonzo are sharing an intimate moment on the first poster, a nice fading red and blue filter from top to bottom. Baldwin’s name is called out, as is Jenkins’. Copy at the bottom encourages us to “Trust love all the way.”
That same tagline is used on the second poster along with many of the other elements from the first one. Tish and Alfonzo are also still looking into each other’s eyes but this time you can see more of the neighborhood street in the background.
The first teaser was released on James Baldwin’s birthday and while it didn’t show much in the way of a linear story, it was clear about the tone of the movie and the theme of family, community and identity. We get the connection between Tish and Alfonzo and how deeply they’re in love, as well as the bond between Tish and her mother. This was an incredibly powerful first effort and sold the idea that Jenkins was not slouching in his sophomore effort.
There are elements of social justice, moral righteousness, class division and much more on display in the second trailer, but at its core it’s selling a movie about love. Tish and Alfonzo are in love with each other and each loves the baby she’s carrying, just as they ask their sometimes-disapproving family to love it and them. Swooping crane shots, well-framed images of inequality and more are all on display here, presenting a movie that’s timely and timeless, grand in scope but personal in focus.
A final short trailer encourages Tish to “trust love all the way” as we see the basic outlines of the story and the romance that drives the characters to make the choices they do.
Online and Social
Annapurna’s official website for the movie offers the trailer as well as a “Lookbook” that features background information on Baldwin, Jenkins and the rest of the cast with quotes and photos from and of everyone involved. The “Acclaim” section has quotes from some of the early reviews of the movie while “Save the Date” lets you add the movie to the calendar of your choice so you remember to buy tickets. There are also links to the official profiles on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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Media and Publicity
The first news of the movie came when it was announced the adaptation would be Jenkins’ follow-up to his critically-acclaimed Moonlight. The movie was announced as one of those screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, with first look stills released around the same time. It also made the list for the New York Film Festival.
The U.S. premiere, though, was scheduled for the Apollo Theater in New York in October. That’s a nice placement since that’s Jenkins’ home turf.
While in Toronto, Jenkins spoke about how the movie’s story resonates today though it’s set in the past as well as how he wrote it as a companion piece of sorts to Moonlight. He also shared the advice he received in the wake of that movie’s success, what kind of offers he did and didn’t get and more. There was more from Jenkins offered during the Q&A following the film’s screening and a later interview had him revealing the role actor Jake Gyllenhaal played in securing the rights to the book.
Jenkins was honored at PEN America LitFest Gala. During an NYFF session, Jenkins spoke about how his approach to the story was informed greatly by the unique access he was given to Baldwin’s notes on the book and other background material.
A brief interview with Diego Luna had the actor talking about how he modeled his character after Jenkins himself. Colman was interviewed about his role and what the production was like a bit later on.
The Gotham Awards nominated the film in multiple categories, giving it a boost going into awards season.
The audience was introduced to the work of James Baldwin in a featurette from late November that had Jenkins and others speaking about the legacy of the author and the books he wrote, specifically the one the movie is based on. Another from a few weeks later had Jenkins focusing on how Baldwin used Beale Street as a blank canvas for anywhere in America.
More interviews with Jenkins followed in late November, many of which focused on the need to tell more stories about a broader range of black characters and people than have been historically produced, what other black-penned novels may be ripe for adaptation and what black authors people should dig deeper into.
King spoke about her career as well as her role in the film and how it’s been received so far while Jenkins continued to speak about his favorite moment in the movie and the burden of doing justice to Baldwin’s legacy.
The first clip offered an extended look at the scene where Tish announces to the rest of her family that she’s pregnant. A later clip, released after the movie was already in some theaters, showed an emotional confrontation about the baby.
The movie’s Golden Globes nominations allowed Jenkins to speak some more about the themes of the movie and how relevant and important it is. He was also interviewed about how the movie represents the culmination of his obsession with and devotion to Baldwin and his attempt to get the voice of the story right.
Annapurna shared the highlights of a cast Q&A that accompanied a recent screening of the movie. After that an interview with King had her talking about the movie and Jenkins talking about working with her. She also appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about this and other upcoming projects.
The movie was added to many critics’ end-of-year best-of lists while different members of the cast continued to heralded as breakout stars of the year, all of which added to the movie’s cache and buzz.
Jenkins was interviewed on “CBS This Morning” about the empathy he felt was at the heart of Baldwin’s story. He also called out how he keeps casting his movies with talented young actors from Chicago’s DePaul University while also touching on some of the other regular themes.
There were also profiles of Layne that focused on how rare it is for a black actress to play a straightforward romantic lead and interviews with Henry about the story and characters. The scarcity of romantic roles for black actors was also mentioned by Domingo. Jenkins made even more media appearances on “The Late Show” while James did “Late Night.”
You have to love how Jenkins is selling this as a passion project of the first degree from beginning to end. Unlike many other projects to which that label is affixed this time it’s not just about something the creator found clever or interesting at some point but an essential story he felt needed to be brought to a wider audience.
It’s his personality, bolstered by the acclaim he’s received in the wake of Moonlight, that’s at the forefront of the campaign. Every time Jenkins was interviewed about the influence Baldwin had on him it’s his commitment to the author’s message that comes through most clearly. Not only that but, like many of the best leaders, he keeps pushing the spotlight onto the others involved, namely the talented cast.
The late focus in the publicity on how love stories featuring all-black casts is similar to how movies like Crazy Rich Asians was covered and achieves the same end, calling out how bad Hollywood has been on creating inclusive stories. At some point this will hopefully be so common it’s no longer worth mentioning.