For writer-director Barry Jenkins, the story of If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t entirely found in its plot, but rather in its impressionistic, sometimes dialogue-free scenes that unfold for minutes at a time.
“I think they advance the emotion in a very concrete way,” he said at Deadline’s Contenders New York event. “When you read a novel, you read the dialogue between characters but then the author will go on this riff. That’s the interior life of these characters. Cinema is always trying to find a way to communicate that interior life.”
One example is a scene in which Regina King’s character is standing at a mirror. Sharon’s daughter, played by KiKi Layne, is pregnant and trying to clear the name of her wrongly convicted husband, who is played by Stephan James. The two-and-a-half-minute scene in the film captures a three-page passage in the book, one which Jenkins said he tried “to translate into sound and image.”
At this point in the film, which is set in Harlem in the 1970s, viewers “are fully, actively empathizing with this character,” Jenkins added. “So why not look directly into her eyes?”
For his portrayal of a victim of criminal injustice, James researched real-life stories such as that of Kalief Browder, who spent two years in solitary confinement on New York’s Rikers Island while awaiting trial. Tormented by the effects of that experience, which resulted in no criminal charges, he committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22. “It just really hit home for me and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s only one story, one in a million,'” James said. “There are so many young men in this country who are going through the same thing.”
King and her co-star, Colman Domingo, saluted Jenkins and his behind-the-camera collaborators, for creating a stimulating on-set atmosphere. “They approached this whole thing as artists and vessels who want to learn and grow,” King said. “We just wanted to open up our arms and hold it,” Domingo said. “Hold all that love. … Barry, thank you. You really did create a family.”
Jenkins saw the families both on- and off-screen as essential. “They say the best vessel for ideas is story and the best vessel for story is a relationship,” he said. “The story of America is framed through this family.”
Beale Street, an Annapurna release, opens December 14.