"If Beale Street Could Talk," which debuts in theaters nationwide today (December 25), arrives at the tail end of a year dominated by movies that explore Black families and relationships. Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight") adds to this canon with his faithful adaptation of James Baldwin‘s 1974 novel of the same name.
"Beale Street" tells the story of two working-class Black families, the Rivers and the Hunts. Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne, "Chicago Med") and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, "Shots Fired") are childhood friends who eventually fall in love. Soon after they discover that Tish, 19, is pregnant, 22-year-old Fonny is imprisoned for a rape that he did not commit. Their families are forced to come together to try to exonerate Fonny so that he can be there for Tish and their new baby. While the story doesn’t shy away from the myriad ways that racist policing, incarceration and trauma can strain family bonds, the characters in "Beale Street" are not solely defined by these factors.
Hollywood rarely uplifted stories like these when three-time Emmy winner Regina King ("Seven Seconds") and Tony-nomiminated actor Colman Domingo ("Passing Strange") first began their careers. Both actors spent decades trying to bring emotionally rich Black characters to the screen and stage. They each frame their roles in "Beale Street" within that quest.
"I feel lucky and honored to be a part of bringing a writer’s words to life, especially when they aren’t just words—they reflect the experience of being Black in America," King tells Colorlines. "And I’ve been Black in America all my life! To have the opportunity to express some of my passion, sorrow or thoughts about what being Black in America is, through someone else’s words that share the same sentiment, it’s lucky. It feels like art meeting philanthropy."
"I always try to be very specific about the roles that I choose, because a lot of roles seek me," says Domingo, a prolific theater actor and playwright who is known to TV viewers as Victor Strand in "Fear of the Walking Dead." "I say no a lot, because I always have a question about what [the role is] saying. It seems like these projects of substance have been seeking me out, and maybe it’s because of my own personal mission I have about how art and activism can intersect."
King and Domingo had different relationships to Baldwin’s work before they signed on to portray Tish’s affectionate parents, Sharon and Joseph.
"With my mother being a teacher, I was aware of who James Baldwin was—is," King explains, correcting herself. "He still is with us, in so many ways. I was familiar with any his interviews you’ve seen, any essay you’ve read, and his [famous] open letter to Angela Davis. But I can’t say that I, like Barry [Jenkins], read most of his books. I wish I could [say] that, but I can’t. [Laughs.]
Domingo, on the other hand, encountered Baldwin through the African-American student union at Temple University. "That began my absolute love, not only for James Baldwin’s text, but James Baldwin, the man," he recounts. In 2014 Domingo later interpreted some of Baldwin’s essays in a piece, "Nothing Personal," that he performed at the New York Live Arts Festival. Domingo says that this work prompted his investment in bringing Baldwin’s work to more people.
"Beale Street" takes place in Harlem, and King and Domingo each grew up in similarly Black enclaves in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, respectively. Working with a Black director and primary cast on "Beale Street" allowed them to flourish and communicate in a way they otherwise couldn’t. Both actors separately talk about the "shorthand" and shared experiences that let them work more seamlessly with Jenkins.
The chance to bring unique Black stories like "Beale Street" to life also animates King and Domingo’s pursuits as producers and creators. Domingo, for instance, will turn his Alzheimer’s-focused play, "Dot," into a series for AMC called "West Philly Baby." "Maybe it’s just a little bit of Philly in me—the hustle—but I always have things going on," Domingo says about his career. "Whether something pops or not, I’m not waiting on it, because I’m still betting on myself. [Laughs] "But it’s also nice to have this push from a film like ‘Beale Street’ that lets me put my work out there in a way that moves the dial—not only on the film, but also for my own personal mission."
King, for her part, planned to produce and star in an series adaptation of "No Place Safe," Kim Reid’s memoir about coming of age in Atlanta as her mother investigated the murders of 28 Black children and young adults. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that FX didn’t bring the project to series but tht hasn’t stopped King from pursuing it.
"We’re haven’t let that go yet," she affirms. "There’s so much we want to dive into. The opportunity to do ‘Beale Street’ makes me even more passionate about trying to get that to the finish line."
"If Beale Street Could Talk" opens in theaters across the nation today.