Barry Jenkins, 'Beale Street' cast on what film says about systemic racism and an unfair justice system

In If Beale Street Could Talk, writer-director Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, a young black artist named Fonny (Stephan James) is arrested and accused of rape despite a lack of any evidence, putting his pregnant girlfriend, Tish (KiKi Layne), and their families through emotional anguish.

The film, like the novel, is set in early-’70s Harlem, though Jenkins (Moonlight) at one point considered updating the story and setting it in the modern day. Sadly, the discrimination that 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,” says Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead), who plays 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.

“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 says 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.”

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select cities Friday and nationwide on Christmas Day.

Watch Barry Jenkins reflect on Envelopegate two years later:

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