Movies

'Beale Street' Pairs An Iconic Civil Rights Voice With A Modern Eye

Very few people have been able to adapt James Baldwin's work for the screen. Barry Jenkins might be the best person for the job.

'Beale Street' Pairs An Iconic Civil Rights Voice With A Modern Eye
Annapurna Pictures / "If Beale Street Could Talk"
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["When I was growing up, I was trying to make a connection through the life I saw and the life I lived."]

["I'll tell you a story, if I may."]

What you just heard is the voice of writer James Baldwin reading from his acclaimed book "If Beale Street Could Talk." What you're seeing is the adaptation of that book by director Barry Jenkins.

If you're unfamiliar with either or both artists, here's a short primer. Baldwin was an iconic voice of the civil rights movement — a voice that's been described as "revelatory," poignant and abrasively realistic.

In 1986, a year before his death, Baldwin was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest civil distinction in France. 

["Baldwin's legacy is very important, very rich. I wanted to bring this book into the world intact."]

In 2017, thirty years after Baldwin's death, Jenkins' coming-of-age film "Moonlight" won the Oscars for best picture and best adapted screenplay. Critics praised "Moonlight" as quiet, tender and intimate — tones very similar to Baldwin's writing. 

Jenkins himself once compared his work to the writer's, saying: "What I love about what Baldwin does is that the plot is important, but the emotions are much more what he's about. That's the way 'Moonlight' works, too."

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"If Beale Street Could Talk" is Jenkins' follow-up to "Moonlight," as well as the first English-language feature adaptation of Baldwin's work. That's a big deal because Baldwin's estate is notoriously protective of his work. 

During the New York Film Festival, the writer's niece told audiences she had loved one of Jenkins' past films and hoped her mother, the executor of the Baldwin estate, would give the OK for the "Beale Street" adaptation.

When Jenkins finished his first draft of the screenplay, he said he compared it to Baldwin's own notes on adapting "Beale Street" into a feature film. At this point, it shouldn't be surprising that the two artists had similar visions for the film. 

["This book was written between '68 and '73. I felt there was a power in the movie taking place 45 years ago, and yet still being very relevant today."]

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is a tragic romance about a newly-engaged couple torn apart by a false rape accusation. Before the book debuted in 1974, writer Joyce Carol Oates described it as "so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless." Jenkins wrote in Esquire that it was a "perfect blend" of romance and social critique.

As of Christmas Day 2018, the critically-acclaimed film made more than $800,000 in theaters.

Heading further into Oscar season, the movie is also a critics' favorite for best picturebest supporting actress and best adapted screenplay.