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James Baldwin was getting over a bout of writer’s block when he published his fifth novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” in 1974.
With the deaths of his friends Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he was in despair and stopped writing for several years.
“The terrible thing that happened to me—and to blacks in America—during that whole terrible time was the realization that our destines are in our hands, black hands and no one else’s,” he once told The New York Times.
Despite his dismal assessment, he decided not to give up hope and instead embraced love, which is demonstrated in his novel that marked the end of his writer’s block.
The story, which he said is about “survival and eventual triumph,” has now been adapted for the silver screen.
It follows a pregnant 19-year-old woman, portrayed by Kiki Layne, who fights to prove her 21-year-old fiancé, played by Stephan James, is innocent of the rape charges he faces.
While it’s set in 1970s Harlem, the cast said the themes of racism and socialism share a striking resemblance to current times.
“Mr. Baldwin was a very deep thinker,” director Barry Jenkins said. “I think a lot of the things he was writing were so truthful and authentic to the American experience that they are still relevant.”
In fact, he had to choose between keeping the film adaption in the 1970s or bringing it to present day. He chose the former.
“I thought it would be even more powerful to see how little has changed and how the situations these characters find themselves in, people still find themselves in every day,” said Barry, who directed the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.”
Although “If Beale Street Could Talk” doesn’t hit theaters until Christmas Day, the flick has already garnered three Golden Globe nominations, including one for best motion picture, one for Jenkins for best screenplay and one for Regina King, who plays Sharon Rivers, for best supporting actress.
Working alongside the famous ensemble, which also includes Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris and Brian Tyree Henry, known for his role as Paper Boi in “Atlanta,” was an honor for newcomer Layne.
“There was a lot of growth between who I was at the table read and who I was the last day on set,” Layne said. “That was fostered by everyone I was working with.”
“It was about building a family that felt organic,” Jenkins added. “I had this feeling that the nurturing that was going to take place, especially with Kiki, was going to reveal itself as nurturing in the film…I just marvel at all these talented people who were willing to work with me.”
Baldwin once told The New York Times black movies made during his era missed the mark. Hopefully, he would view “If Beale Street Could Talk” as a means of raising the bar for a new generation of black films.