Spoilers ahead. Though audiences do see Fonny out in the world, falling in love with his girlfriend, Tish, through extended flashbacks, the main action of If Beale Street Could Talk really takes place during his time awaiting trial and ends with him part of the way through his prison sentence. If Beale Street Could Talk doesn't explain how long Fonny is in prison, and it's kept vague to make a specific point: Any amount of prison time is too long because he was found guilty based on a false allegation.
"It didn't matter," says actor Stephan James, who plays Fonny (aka Alonzo) in the film, speaking over the phone. "The fact that he was in there was enough, and it was sort of just this indefinite time period. He shouldn't have been in there to begin with."
At the end of the movie, Tish (KiKi Layne) visits Fonny in prison with their son, Alonzo Jr., who is now around three years old. They mention how much time Fonny has left behind bars, but the audience doesn't get to hear exactly how long the remainder of his sentence is. In a separate interview, Layne says that she thinks that this ambiguity further provokes viewers to deal with the fact that Fonny ends up going to prison at all. "He never should have spent one day in there, so it's almost like it doesn't matter how long he was in there," she says. "I think that leaving that detail out encourages the audience to wrestle with that and that feeling that he never should have spent one day there."
The film was adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins from the novel by James Baldwin. In the book, readers are also left in the dark when it comes to the specifics of Fonny's future, but in a different way. In her New York Times review of the book, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that at the end, "Fonny is out on bail, his trial postponed indefinitely, neither free nor imprisoned but at least returned to the world of the living." This is a more hopeful conclusion in that readers can choose to believe Fonny and Tish will get to spend more time together with their child, but the same point is made: The couple has to continue to live their lives under the shadow of injustice.
While it's unclear how long Fonny will be in prison in the movie's version of events, it is clear that Fonny and Tish still have a lot of love for each other, and, through everything that happens to them, that that's the most important, enduring thing. James says of the story overall, "For me the biggest themes are just love and hope and what the power of those things can get you through." Layne agrees and says of the takeaway for audiences, "[Love] really is such a powerful thing, and it is a thing that is under attack and so it's something that's worth fighting for."
If Beale Street Could Talk gets a limited release on Dec. 14 and begins hitting theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.