Spoilers ahead. Though the book written was in 1974, the plot of If Beale Street Could Talk is unfortunately still very relevant 44 years later. Rape allegations, false imprisonment, and racist police officers are topics that have only become more talked about in recent years. And now, with the film adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, writer-director Barry Jenkins has taken on the challenge of interweaving those subjects, finding a difficult balance in presenting the unjust prison system to the "Me Too" era, where audiences are more aware than ever of how infrequent false rape allegations actually are.
According to the stars of If Beale Street Could Talk (out in limited release Dec. 14), this balance is struck because Victoria (Emily Rios), the Puerto Rican woman who accuses main character Fonny of rape, isn't the enemy.
"It was very purposeful. [Victoria] is not the antagonist of the film," says KiKi Layne, who plays Tish, the lead character and Fonny's girlfriend and, eventually, baby's mother. In the film, Tish's mother, Sharon (Regina King) goes to Puerto Rico — Victoria moves back after the allegation — to try to speak with her. Layne points out that Sharon even calls Victoria "daughter." The actor explains, "[The movie is] still bringing so much love to the situation because [Victoria's] not the enemy, and I think sometimes people in these positions get painted as that."
Stephan James, who plays Fonny, makes a similar point. "We find out that Fonny is in this incredible, tumultuous situation. And you know him and his family, they believe that Fonny didn't do it," he says over the phone. "And I think that Fonny's accuser has sort of gone through the same thing in which she's had this horrible, tragic thing happen to her ... Baldwin makes it clear that we believe her, we believe her accusations, we just don't believe that it was Fonny who did it."
It helps make Fonny's case that, as the audience, we get to meet the racist cop who frames him and influences Victoria to say Fonny was the rapist. We can see that this man was driven purely by his racism and the simple convenience of making the first black man he comes across a suspect. It's also effective to show Victoria cornered and panicking in Puerto Rico when Sharon goes to see her. "I think sometimes people don't understand that when you go through all the trials and the accusations and everything, you're living it again and again," Layne says of accusers like Victoria. "Someone is throwing it in your face again and again. And you see all of this pain that she is going through and eventually she just starts screaming."
But even though the racist police officer and the emotions from Victoria help prove to viewers that Fonny didn't commit the crime, overall, the story is about something bigger, says Layne: the humanity of everyone involved, the accuser and the accused included.
"I think a lot of these people who experience those types of things — incidents with police brutality or wrongful imprisonment or sexual assault — can sometimes be reduced to statistics," she says. "And I think what's powerful about this film is that you recognize that these aren't statistics. This isn't just another black man who's been thrown in prison unfairly. This is a man who has a family. Somebody's son, father, brother. You see the humanity of the people who are left behind."
And, when it comes down to it, the story is also very much about love. While the audience sees Fonny in prison and hears about racism and false allegations and the legal moves Tish's family makes to find justice, Beale Street is about the love Tish and Fonny have for each other and the love their family has for them. "The biggest message in the film would just have to be love and hope," James says. "As cliché as it sounds, just what the power of that love and hope can help you sustain."
Without even knowing it, the co-stars echo each other. "It may sound so cliché," Layne says in a separate call, "but [the film is about] just the power of love and fighting for it and having all these people around you who love you." In the end, Fonny does get a prison sentence — for how long, we don't find out — but the love is still there. Now, it's the love between mother, father, and son, as they continue to exist in a world, much like the one for many people today, where it's the only thing that can sustain them.