It was already an emotional night at the Apollo as the iconic Harlem venue was filled by over 1,000 people for the U.S. premiere of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” writer-director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Then the Baldwin family joined Jenkins and the film’s cast onstage for the off-site New York Film Festival event to explain why they gave their permission for the first adaptation of the late writer’s work.
Baldwin’s nephew, Trevor Baldwin, took the microphone first. “My Baldwin family, wassup?” he greeted an ecstatic crowd, establishing a tone that fit the celebratory occasion. Jenkins’ first movie since Oscar winner “Moonlight” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but the Apollo screening represented a homecoming: As NYFF director Kent Jones noted at the start of the night, Baldwin was born in Harlem Hospital and lived on 128th Street and Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from the theater.
Prior to the event, the cast beamed about the implications of the screening. “I pulled up to the red carpet, and looked up at the marquee, and I was breathless,” said Colman Domingo, who plays the supportive father figure in the film, on the red carpet. “I was almost brought to tears, because I understood that I am in the middle of history with Baldwin’s work.”
He wasn’t alone. “James Baldwin’s voice is such an important voice, period, but also for the black community,” said KiKi Layne, who plays the young woman at the center of the movie, in an interview before the screening. Stephan James, who plays Layne’s incarcerated boyfriend in the film, echoed that sentiment by acknowledging the setting. “It’s like a total full-circle moment,” he told IndieWire. “We literally shot on these streets, and to be back here, finally giving this place a story from where this story was born, is a crazy, special feeling.”
While “Moonlight” transformed Jenkins into a venerated filmmaker and scored him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, his efforts to nab the rights to the movie stretched back to a much earlier date. In December 2013, “I was broke and tired,” he said during the Q&A. Adele Romanski, his producer and old film school peer, sent him off to Europe. He spent 10 days in Brussels writing the screenplay to “Moonlight,” then took a train to Berlin, where he wrote an adaptation of the Baldwin novel. “I did not have the rights to this novel!” he said, as the audience chuckled. “But I got ‘em now.”
By then, however, Jenkins was already on the Baldwin family’s radar. The filmmaker initially contacted Gloria Karefa-Smart, James Baldwin’s sister and the executor of the estate, with a DVD of his 2008 directorial debut “Medicine for Melancholy.” She watched the movie with her daughter, Aisha Karefa-Smart, who joined the other Baldwins onstage. “I came home from a trip and my mom handed me this DVD,” she said. The movie, a sleeper hit at SXSW, co-stars Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins as characters wandering the city and talking through their lives after a one-night stand. “It was amazing,” Karefa-Smart said. “It was a quirky, funny, black love story. I just said to myself, ‘Give the OK, because my mom says no to everyone.’ So I’m just happy this happened.” (Cenac, who became a correspondent for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” shortly after his starring role in “Medicine,” was in the audience for the Apollo event.)
Karefa-Smart singled out the cultural significance of the “Beale Street” plot, which revolves around the experiences of Tish (Layne), a pregnant young woman attempting to exonerate her boyfriend Fonny (James) after he’s arrested on trumped-up rape charges. The narrative shifts between these efforts and flashbacks to the history of their relationship. “The story is a revolutionary story about black love,” Karefa-Smart said. “Loving while black is a revolutionary act. It’s an act of resistance to love under the conditions in which we live, to raise children, to maintain family, and just continue the resistance and stay strong.”
In his opening statement, Trevor Baldwin quoted from his uncle’s short story, “Sonny’s Blue”:
All they really knew were two darknesses, 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.
From there, Trevor Baldwin concluded: “As we gather this evening to witness the product of Jimmy’s words from yesterday, through the lens of Barry today — with the amazing cast of tomorrow, together creating a contemporary period piece that touches the soul — there is no darkness, because the lights are bright on Beale Street.”
Annapurna Pictures will release “If Beale Street Could Talk” on November 30.