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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ premiere brings James Baldwin’s Harlem to Washington

Director Barry Jenkins participates in a Q&A session after Saturday night's screening of "If Beale Street Could Talk," which closed the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Festival. (Kris Connor/Annapurna Pictures)

Barry Jenkins stood in front of a massive theater screen Saturday night at the National Air and Space Museum as he introduced his film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the closing feature of the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Festival. You almost had to squint to see Jenkins, who later tweeted that he looked like an ant from the audience’s perspective.

“This is the only Imax presentation of this film ever,” he said, laughing.

This wasn’t where the Washington premiere of his James Baldwin adaptation was initially supposed to take place, but festival organizers were forced to switch course that morning after a small fire on the loading docks of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The red carpet that preceded the screening ended up beneath 90-year-old aircrafts suspended from the new location’s ceiling.

But unexpected circumstances didn’t prevent Jenkins and his cast from oozing excitement. Their positive spirits kept with that of the director’s work, which highlights how powerful love can be in the face of adversity. The theme ran through his Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” before “Beale Street,” which is set in 1970s Harlem and centers on newly engaged and expecting couple Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), whose lives are derailed after a racist police officer arrests Fonny for a crime he didn’t commit. The latter film marks the first time a Baldwin piece has been adapted into an English-language feature.

Among those who made red carpet appearances were TV personality Roland Martin, #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign and activist DeRay Mckesson — the last of whom, wearing his trademark blue Patagonia vest, commented on the current state of American politics: “There are very few adequate days that come out of this White House,” he said.

James and Layne, dressed in a gorgeous rust suit and a bejeweled nude dress, respectively, spoke to reporters stationed in front of “Beale Street” posters bearing the young actors’ faces. Both expressed how honored they felt to be a part of a Baldwin adaptation — “This is going to introduce James Baldwin and his words and his way of thinking to so many people who maybe just haven’t paid attention,” Layne said — and praised Jenkins, whom James referred to as a “true auteur” more than once, for fostering a familial vibe on set.

Regina King served as the matriarch of that family — both on screen, where she plays Tish’s determined mother, Sharon, and off. James remarked that he calls King “mama,” having worked with her once before. Layne, who had never starred in a feature film before “Beale Street,” added that it was “beautiful” to work with the acting heavyweight, who taught her that “no matter how many years I spend in Hollywood, no matter how big my star gets, I can still be . . . as grounded as I was before I booked this thing.”

King has already earned Oscar buzz for her passionate, gut-wrenching performance in the film. She commanded the carpet in her peach gown and reciprocated Layne’s heartfelt praise. The young actress puts in the work, King said, and takes time to appreciate the resulting success.

“So often, we don’t,” King said. “We push, push, push, push, push, and we don’t take the time to smell the flower and feel what’s happening. She’s doing that, and I applaud her.”

Jenkins took extra care in guiding Layne through the process, too, as evident during a post-screening Q&A in which Layne eloquently spoke about how she got used to the intimate camerawork that Jenkins’s directing style calls for. On the red carpet, though, Jenkins spoke more broadly on what it meant for him to be able to bring a touching story like “Beale Street” to the big screen in this current political climate.

“I think we’re all kind of just looking for that thing that can buffer us or save us or just make us feel whole in these very, very dark times,” Jenkins said. “In this book in particular — and in ‘Moonlight,’ in a certain way — the thing that gives the characters the strength to endure is love. I like to say that most people’s lives are about the abundance or absence of love. So far, that’s been the main drive in the work I’ve created.”