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The Piercing New Film Humanizing the Crimes of Our Legal System

If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk. (image via YouTube)

“All these men that are being locked up [and] wrongfully accused—there are people who love [them],” Layne said. “Now we have to look them in the eye and experience what this does to them.”

The new film based on the acclaimed 1974 novel by esteemed author James Baldwin, “If Beale Street Could Talk”, is as relevant now as it was then, exploring the often troubling relationship between America’s legal system and race.

Indeed, the Oscar-winning director of the new film, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), considered updating the story and setting it in the modern day. Ultimately, he chose to follow the novel and set the film in early 1970s Harlem.

It centers on a young black artist named Fonny (Stephan James) who is arrested and accused of rape despite a lack of evidence, putting his pregnant girlfriend, Tish (KiKi Layne), and their families through emotional turmoil.

Jenkins pointed out that the discrimination Fonny faces would ring just as true today.

“Unfortunately, it is the systems that are in place, that have been in place for a very long time, and they have not changed,” said Colman Domingo (“Fear the Walking Dead”), who played Tish’s father, Joseph Rivers.

“I think it’s saying it very clearly. And it’s something that we have to constantly examine, and reexamine and reexamine, and never get lulled into thinking that this is not who this country is,” he said. “But we can get better, hopefully, and if we can’t get better, maybe it can get a little better for our children, the more we know about each other.”

Jenkins said the story is not just an indictment of systemic racism against African-Americans but a commentary on the broken justice system as a whole.

“I think for American citizens in general, when you have a legal system that is set up to create adversarial forces—there’s a prosecution and defense—it’s about winning and losing, not about finding the truth. That invites corruption. And when you have a prison system that’s privatized and functions based on business, again that inspires corruption.”

“So I think Mr. Baldwin was really prescient about pointing out some of these things in a way that is humane, and is tied to a family and tied to love. It’s what drove me to the book in the first place,” Jenkins explained.

Co-star Kiki Layne also emphasized that what drew her to the film and the original novel was its focus on the humanity of the characters involved.

“All these men that are being locked up [and] wrongfully accused—there are people who love [them],” Layne said. “Now we have to look them in the eye and experience what this does to them.”

The original novel has been lauded for humanizing black men in these situations, and its portrayal of the love and support from their loved ones. Author James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, New York in the 1920s and became a literary icon as well as social activist.

The new film has been nominated for three Golden Globes, for Best Motion Picture Drama, Best Supporting Actress (Regina King), and Best Screenplay.

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select theaters on December 14, 2018, and nationwide December 25.


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