Barry Jenkins on how If Beale Street Could Talk resonates today

If Beale Street Could Talk, it would have an awful lot to say about the state of the world today.

The film, making its world premiere Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, is based on the 1974 book by James Baldwin, which director Barry Jenkins says feels incredibly contemporary.

The filmmaker, whose last project was the Oscar-winning drama Moonlight, visited the PEOPLE and EW video suite to talk about his latest movie, which he says he wrote as a sort of companion piece to Moonlight. “It all started in the summer of 2013 when I wrote these two screenplays,” he recalled. “I always considered them like a pair or a duet, telling the same story but in two different worlds.”

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Despite their different settings and source materials — Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney — Jenkins said he always felt the parallels between the two projects. He was also struck by the continued relevance of Beale Street, which centers on a young pregnant woman (KiKi Layne) trying to get her innocent husband (Stephan James) out of jail before the birth of their child.

“To be on set and see… all these amazing actors perform some of these scenarios and scenes that were written in 1974, and it felt like we could walk off set and they would happen right there two blocks away today, I think that was proof positive of what I hope people take from the film,” he said. “Which is [that] America has come a long way, there have been so many progresses that we’ve all made, yet there’s still so much farther to go. And if we don’t always pay attention to the distance we have to travel, we won’t get anywhere.”

Watch the video above for more.

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