Local nonprofit fighting to exonerate prisoners screens “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Josh Axelrod, Staff Reporter

Sanjali De Silva | Senior Staff Photographer
In a Q&A session following the screening of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Brenda Alexander and husband Malcolm Alexander, client of Innocence Project New Orleans, discuss false incarceration with Jee Park, president of Innocence Project.

Following up his celebrated, Oscar-winning hit “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins opted to tell another moving and oft-forgotten story. Weaving an intimate picture of black love amid a backdro­­p of wrongful imprisonment and the criminal justice system, his next film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is already earning critical acclaim.

The Innocence Project New Orleans, an organization that works to free innocent prisoners, took notice of the film’s resonant themes and artistry, hosting a screening at the Prytania Theatre on Wednesday to celebrate it and open dialogue. Following the film, a panel featuring the film’s producer, IPNO’s executive director and a freed prisoner discussed the movie and its potential impact.

Central to the conversation was the question of whether a film or piece of art could be viewed as a public good. Jeremy Kleiner, one of the film’s producers, questioned the altruistic value of films but went on to champion the power of storytelling.

“Narrative does play a role somehow in how value systems are sustained and evolved,” Kleiner, a two time Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” said. “I think there’s something about circulating alternative cosmologies, alternative ideas of who people are.”

One of his goals in working on the film was to help Jenkins tell a tale Hollywood often neglects. Based on a novel by social critic James Baldwin and featuring an almost all-black cast, “Beale Street,” focuses on a 22-year-old undeservedly placed in prison. More importantly, it relates the love story of Fonny and Tish, two partners of passion, swallowing up the world of 1970s Harlem.

“If this film, maybe plays a tiny part, it would be to present a contrary picture of the emotional lives of human beings to the one we’re told more customarily,” Kleiner said.

“Beale Street” scored three Oscar nominations last week, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. Jee Park, executive director of IPNO, wanted to publicly screen the film because, in addition to its elegant storytelling and expert cinematography, it puts on naked display the flaws of the criminal justice system.

IPNO works to correct unjust policy and free individual prisoners using retroactive DNA evidence. It has seen the exoneration of 33 prisoners since 2003.

“In so many ways our criminal justice system reaches back into our past,” Park said. “James Baldwin makes this connection … with slavery, with Jim Crow, and with our current criminal justice system. So if we can somehow magically get rid of racial bias and white supremacy, to be quite honest, that would be a start [to fixing the system.]”

Malcolm Alexander, a now-free man who spent 38 years in prison based on incorrect witness identification, sat on the panel with his wife Brenda.

“I loved the movie,” Brenda said. “It brought back some memories … of what she was going through and why she wanted him to be close and how he wanted to be close to her and I know that feeling.”

Louisiana State Representative Royce Duplessis emceed the discussion. After sparking conversation around representation in film, the particularities of Louisiana’s sentencing laws and how films like “Beale Street” get made, he urged audience members to get involved politically and vote for judges and sheriffs that support criminal justice reform.

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