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'Beale Street' Pairs An Iconic Civil Rights Voice With A Modern Eye

"When I was growing up, I was trying to make a connection through the life I saw and the life I lived."

"I'll tell you a story, if I may."

What you just heard is the voice of writer James Baldwin reading from his acclaimed book "If Beale Street Could Talk." What you're seeing is the adaptation of that book by director Barry Jenkins.

If you're unfamiliar with either or both artists, here's a short primer. 

Baldwin was an iconic voice of the civil rights movement — a voice that's been described as both poignant and subtle, with an emotional lyricism that highlighted social issues and inequalities. In 1986, a year before his death, Baldwin was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest civil distinction in France. 

"Baldwin's legacy is very important, very rich. I wanted to bring this book into the world intact."

Thirty years later, Jenkins' coming-of-age film "Moonlight" won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Critics praised the film as quiet, tender and intimate — tones very similar to Baldwin's. 

Jenkins himself once compared his work to the writer's, saying: "What I love about what Baldwin does is that the plot is important, but the emotions are much more what he's about. That's the way 'Moonlight' works, too."

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"If Beale Street Could Talk" is Jenkins' follow-up to "Moonlight," as well as the first English-language feature adaptation of Baldwin's work.

That's a big deal because Baldwin's estate is notoriously protective of his work. 

During the New York Film Festival, the writer's niece told audiences she had loved one of Jenkins' past films and hoped her mother, the executor of the Baldwin estate, would give the OK for the "Beale Street" adaptation.

When Jenkins finished his first draft of the screenplay, he said he compared it to Baldwin's own notes on adapting "Beale Street" into a feature film. At this point, it shouldn't be surprising that the two artists had similar visions for the film. 

"This book was written between '68 and '73. I felt there was a power in the movie taking place 45 years ago, and yet still being very relevant today," Jenkins said.

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is a tragic romance about a couple separated as a result of a faulty justice system. Critics have praised the film for its take on social injustice as well as its poetic style. 

The film begins its limited release on Dec. 14. 


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