Barry Jenkins Brings James Baldwin Home to Harlem
The U.S. premiere of the film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, held at the historic Apollo Theater, captured all the generous, urgent love the writer’s work conveyed.
In the July 1960 issue of Esquire magazine, the essayist and fiction author James Baldwin wrote a piercing love letter to the neighborhood of his birth. “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” detailed the beauty and burdens of life in Harlem, tracing the roots—and, more importantly, the effects—of housing segregation, anti-black policing, and the mundane horror of poverty.
Baldwin’s reflection ended with an exhortation to the white Northern reader: “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: In the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself,” he wrote. “Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.”
But Baldwin’s Harlem was never defined solely by the external circumstances that shaped it, or by the adversity that characterized its residents’ lives. Though mired in hardship, Baldwin’s Harlem held a distinct tenderness. The black people who called it home shared a kind of love that buoyed them—and the neighborhood—through storms of injustice.
Nearly 60 years later, the streets of Harlem came together to celebrate Baldwin, and to bestow upon the late literary titan a modicum of the devotion he showed his home and his readers. Tuesday night, as a part of the 56th annual New York Film Festival, the filmmaker Barry Jenkins brought his latest movie to the Apollo Theater.
An adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, the film tells the story of the wrongfully incarcerated Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). After a white police officer effectively frames Fonny for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, the 22-year-old black Harlemite finds out that his childhood friend and soon-to-be-wife, the 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), is pregnant. If Beale Street Could Talk chronicles their gentle romance, as well as the strained fortitude of the Harlem families who support the two and help Tish prepare for the baby who arrives while Fonny is in carceral limbo.
The significance of hosting the stateside premiere of Beale Street at the legendary Harlem auditorium was not lost on Jenkins. “James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, this book is set in Harlem, it was filmed in Harlem,” the director said during a brief introduction preceding the screening. “The first time it shows in the U.S. had to be in damn Harlem!”
Jenkins, who directed the Oscar-winning 2016 picture Moonlight and the 2008 indie romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, spoke with warmth as he introduced the cast of the film, whom he called “the village of If Beale Street Could Talk.” As they gathered, the Liberty City, Miami–bred Jenkins turned the mic over to members of the Baldwin family.
Standing onstage in the Harlem venue, several of Baldwin’s relatives spoke about the writer’s legacy and the film’s place in it. Karim and Aisha Karefa-Smart, Clarence Harris, and Trevor Baldwin all shared their accounts before the film played.
Trevor Baldwin, who spoke first, quoted a different selection of his uncle’s fiction. “In the short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ [James Baldwin] wrote, 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,” Trevor Baldwin said. “As we gather this evening to witness the product of Uncle 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 ’cause the lights are bright on Beale Street.”
“And just like childhood, when the streetlights come on, y’all know y’all gotta be home,” he continued with a chuckle. “So this evening we’re all home at the Apollo.”
The Apollo, first constructed as a burlesque theater that did not permit black patrons, has become a symbol of black entertainment greatness in the years since its inception. Its famed Amateur Night has jump-started the careers of iconic figures like Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. Its legend is difficult to overstate. For that hallowed space to hold Baldwin’s story—and hundreds who’d found solace in Beale Street—was no small feat. Jenkins’s vision required tremendous logistical bandwidth, but it also necessitated the approval of the Baldwins themselves.
Jenkins would explain the unlikely, fortuitous path of building a relationship with the family from his perspective later in the evening, but before Beale Street played, it was a Baldwin who grounded the film’s journey. Aisha Karefa-Smart, whose mother Gloria Karefa-Smart is the executor of the Baldwin estate, smiled as she offered an anecdote about the first time she heard of Jenkins’s work, about eight or 10 years ago. “I came home from a trip, and my mom handed me a DVD, and she said, You gotta watch this; I just got it from this young filmmaker who is interested in doing If Beale Street Could Talk. She said, The film is called Medicine for Melancholy, and I was like, Oh, really? Okay,” Karefa-Smart recalled, her voice conjuring the skepticism she felt then.
“We sat and we watched it together, and it was amazing ... And you know, I just said to myself, Good luck to him getting the okay, because my mom is like Tina Knowles,” she added with a laugh, referencing the notoriously stringent mother of Beyoncé and Solange. “She says no to everyone.”
The Baldwin estate has historically been reluctant to condone adaptations of the writer’s work, an obstacle Jenkins himself has noted. But Karefa-Smart’s words cemented the film’s importance both to the Baldwin family and to black audiences around the country:
I’m just happy that this happened. The story is a revolutionary story about black love. The act of loving while black is a revolutionary act. It’s an act of resistance to love under the conditions with which we live, to raise children, to maintain family, and just continue the resistance and stay strong.
Love, and black love in particular, radiated throughout the Apollo Tuesday night. As the film played, audience members cried, laughed, and leaned into one another’s embrace. Several people seated around me marveled at the power of watching the quintessential Harlem novel brought to life before their eyes, not just in Harlem, but in the historic Apollo Theater.
The “village of Beale Street” hit the same notes: Again and again, Jenkins and the cast expressed their affection not just for one another, but also for the text itself, for the Baldwin family, and for the clarion call that Baldwin’s texts continue to offer black readers. Brian Tyree Henry, best known for his role as Paper Boi in Donald Glover’s FX drama Atlanta, plays Fonny’s wrongfully incarcerated childhood friend Daniel Carty, the only person other than Tish who could corroborate Fonny’s alibi.
Henry expressed a sense of awe—at being in the Apollo for the first time, and entering the historic venue for the U.S. premiere of a film based on the work of one of his idols. “When Barry gave me the call to do this scene, it was kind of an out-of-body experience … because James Baldwin just means so much to me,” he said. “I still carry a copy of The Fire Next Time in my backpack everywhere I go just to make sure, to be ready for what’s goin’ on.”
“So when I got to do the scene with Steph[an James] here, I’m still shocked by how it came out because I literally do not remember the cameras being anywhere in this room,” he continued, describing the pivotal scene in which Daniel tells Fonny about the terrors of incarceration and injustice before the latter is framed. “It was a scene between us just, like, talking about what this sorrow is that we carry and what this heaviness is that we carry, this weight that we carry as black people and not only just black people but people in the system, and at this time in the world.”
Like Karefa-Smart, Henry spoke about the impact of seeing a resolutely black romance at a time when love—that dangerous, radical act—feels so rare. “I think about my younger self looking at movies and knowing that I’ve never seen and experienced a black love like this ever onscreen, and it just is a humbling experience,” he continued. “I’m looking in this audience now and seeing my peers and seeing the mixture of colors and races and sexes—and we’re in the Apollo Theater celebrating this amazing man, this humanitarian, this activist, this human being, James Baldwin, and it just was a no-brainer to be part of it.”
Stephan James, whose piercing eyes won over the fastidious Jenkins despite the novel’s description of Fonny as a light-skinned man, echoed Henry’s sentiments. James had previously acted alongside Colman Domingo, who plays Tish’s father in Beale Street, as well as Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother. Joining the two once more felt akin to a family reunion for him, he said. The components of Beale Street came together to form an undeniable opportunity for the young actor. “The marriage of a James Baldwin and a Barry Jenkins,” he listed, “ … the work that Baldwin has already put on the page for us, just made it so easy to transition into a situation like this.”
James also took the time to praise his costar, the transcendent newcomer KiKi Layne, whose performance as Tish grants Beale Street a gravity and gentleness that channels Baldwinian duality. “I’m just so grateful to have had KiKi Layne as my scene partner for all those moments. You were so incredible, you displayed so much strength,” James said before pausing to accommodate the audience’s rapturous applause. “And you really put this film on your back, so congratulations, I’m really proud of you.” For her part, Layne thanked the rest of the cast for nurturing her as she took on the pressure of a lead role. “This was my introduction [to] doing film on this level,” the theater actor said. “Everyone on this stage was just so supportive and took such good care of me.”
At the after-party following the Apollo screening, held at the Lenox Avenue mainstay Red Rooster, cast members and crew drank and danced alongside audience members. Macaroni and cheese, hot honey chicken, cornbread madeleines, and grits nourished the filmgoers who’d been physically (and emotionally) spent.
The star-studded affair included appearances from actors like the Orange Is the New Black alum Samira Wiley, the Hamilton and Blindspotting ingenue Jasmine Cephas Jones, the Cool Runnings legend Malik Yoba, and Wyatt Cenac, who played one of the leads in Medicine for Melancholy. Domingo gleefully explained the significance of the Gucci crown he wore for the evening. Henry’s Atlanta costar Lakeith Stanfield and his partner, the actress Xosha Roquemore, Milly-rocked by the bar. Fans and friends alike took selfies and recorded GIFs in the photo booth.
Still, the night felt devoid of hierarchies. At the Apollo—and for the rest of the night—we were just Baldwin’s people. And Beale Street brought us all home.