Barry Jenkins wants you to look his ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ characters right in the eye
It’s incredible to think that the work of one of America’s greatest writers has never been adapted in English for the big screen before, but that’s the case for James Baldwin — until now, of course. For his first film following the best picture-winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins took on the challenge of translating Baldwin to movie theaters. Adapted from the late writer’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk brings ’70s Harlem to life in all its lush, golden-hued beauty.
The film is told from the point of view of Tish, played wonderfully by newcomer Kiki Layne, a 19-year-old woman engaged to Fonny, a 22-year-old sculptor played by Homecoming’s Stephan James. After Fonny is arrested and sent to prison for a rape he did not commit, Tish learns she is pregnant. In flashbacks we watch as Tish and Fonny’s love blossoms, while in the film’s present Tish’s family does everything they can to help free Fonny from prison so he can be there when their baby is born.
In adapting Baldwin’s singularly evocative prose to the screen, Jenkins draws on a number of other influences as well, including photographer Roy DeCarava’s striking black-and-white images of black life and Douglas Sirk’s potent and colorful 1950s melodramas. Jenkins interprets Baldwin’s words in visual, cinematic terms, showing the bustling streets of the city, the cracked walls of basement apartments, the stark surroundings of a prison visitation room, the warm glow of a family gathering and the homey comforts of time-worn bars and diners, all backed by a rich, yearning score from Nicholas Britell.
In a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, Jenkins said that, “My favorite thing to do is to sit in the window, the front window of a cafe looking out at the sidewalk.” That observational quality is in full force in Beale Street, which opens in limited release on Dec. 14 and goes wide on Dec. 25. By noticing and accentuating so many small details of the black experience, Jenkins’ film finds the connections that hold everything together in the face of often overwhelming social injustice and racism — the undying importance of family, of motherhood, of love.
Mic spoke to Jenkins over the phone in November about his approach to adapting Beale Street, his fidelity to Baldwin, leaning into a story that centers its female characters and creating an experience of “radical empathy.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: My first thought watching Beale Street was that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, but not slavishly so. You make some changes, you even add a scene, and I had this feeling like, “This is James Baldwin, I would be scared shitless doing this.”
Barry Jenkins: [Laughs] It was by fits and starts, I would say. I started out trying to make a very faithful adaptation. People ask me about pressure in a post-Moonlight world, but that wasn’t the pressure I felt. The pressure I felt was just knowing that Mr. Baldwin hadn’t been adapted in the English language before and that in some ways this would be the introduction to his work for many people. I wanted to bring his writing into the world intact, in a way that had the same imagery, spirit, vitality that I found in the text, and so in that regard I felt a great sense of responsibility. And it can be difficult and challenging to create art when you have almost this latent responsibility hanging over every decision you’re making.
It’s hard to place the movie within any sort of genre, but it really did feel indebted to ‘50s melodramas from directors like Douglas Sirk, in terms of its style. Was drawing on that style part of your approach in making the adaptation work onscreen?
BJ: It is a part of the approach of the first act, I would say. A movie is a very malleable form, and so I felt like the first act could have a certain kind of tone, and that it patches off in a way to the second half that has nothing to do with the melodrama and the sort of Sirk-ian aesthetic. But the first act, absolutely. It’s interesting, people keep mentioning the 1950s. I think part of that is stylistically, again, to mention Douglas Sirk, who was definitely a reference of mine as far as this film goes in the first act.
I think also, too, there’s something so pure about the way Tish’s memories in the first act are framed — it’s like the most iconic first date ever, it’s the most tender first sexual experience ever — that it kind of reminds you not of 1960s America, certainly not 1970s America. It’s that post-World War II 1950s, really the last time we can really think of like a pristine, pure Americana, only it features this young black couple. I think it’s why people bring up every now and then this idea of the 1950s, and I think it’s something that should be embraced. I don’t see it as a pejorative at all.
Stylistically one of the other things that really struck me, and you’ve done this in your films before, is the straight-ahead close-ups with the characters staring into the camera. I think I noticed a dedication to the late director Jonathan Demme in the end credits, and it brought to mind his similar use of close-ups, which he called “subjective camera.” What is it about that technique that appeals to you?
BJ: Working with an adaptation, you’re always trying to find a way to distinguish the new piece of material from the source material, and I think reading literature on the page is quite different from experiencing it in a cinema. You can actually look Tish and Fonny in the eye. We gave Mr. Demme a special thanks, along with Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. Those are the three people that we felt had the most influence on the aesthetic of this film. And you know, with Mr. Demme, he was a such a vocal fan of me, and I actually got to meet him and spend some time with him, and it felt appropriate to thank him in this piece.
I often feel like because we’re watching so many different things, that we’re reading less and watching more, that the medium has to be harnessed in an almost more — aggressive is the wrong word, but it’s all I can think of right now — in a more aggressive way. Part of that is in allowing and encouraging the audience to directly engage the characters onscreen. Mr. Demme did this to great effect in The Silence of the Lambs and so many of his other films, and it just felt like in Moonlight and in this film there was a place for this almost radical empathy — you know, where the audience is directly implicated, asked, encouraged to look our characters in the face. When we do those shots we never know where they’re going to end up. They can very easily be taken out of the narrative, they can very easily not be a part of the narrative at all, but I think in a certain way it elevated the immersive quality of the film.
You’ve got a lot of characters in the film, including the main character Tish, but you extend that sort of humanity to all of the other characters. But there’s an interesting difference in the way that the female characters and male characters engage through the movie. You have these women who are very powerful in a lot of ways, and take charge in their families and even the plot, and then you have the men almost sidelined but still trying to express their agency and take charge of their situation.
BJ: It was something that I was aware of in the source material. I thought, especially coming after Moonlight, which is such male-dominated piece — Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe do great work in Moonlight, but that movie is about the men, it centers the men. You’re right, as opposed to leaning away from [centering the women], I thought that we could lean into it and really create this environment where you really come to understand… You know, in the world that I grew up in in particular, my own personal life, most of the social “interactions” were run by and through the women in the family, and I think Baldwin in this piece created an environment where the same thing is applicable. And I’ve got to say, it is awesome to build a scene where there’s eight actors sitting in a room and very quickly the two men are forced to leave, they are told, “Go, get out of here,” and then the women are left in command, as they often are, to sort out and make sense and bring order to the proceedings.
It was a completely different muscle for me to exercise, to be honest, and the way it functioned for me as a director was, the movie is told from the female point of view, but the book is not written by a woman, and I’m not a woman, and so on set there are certain aspects of my ego that just have to be checked. On this film, I learned the value of listening more than I have on anything I’ve made in the past. There were places where my experience just could not compensate for what the actors were going through, and so I had to ask them, “How do you feel? What do you feel? How can we make this a more organic experience?” It was really lovely to allow Regina King, Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne, Aunjanue Ellis and all these amazing women help me through the process.
It also made me think a lot about Fonny — and Stephan James is so great in the role — but his character, especially in going to prison... You talk about the women sending the men out of the room — in Fonny’s case, he’s sent to prison. The emasculating nature of that really brought to the fore the boiling anger it creates. Showing what the criminal justice system does to black people, and black men in particular.
BJ: Absolutely. I think Baldwin was a really big thinker. He could be very specific and very sharp in his writings, but the ideas, the things he was wrestling with were massive. And I think it’s why in both the book and the film, this character Daniel Carty just appears. And, played by Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel is a satellite character, but then he appears and you see all these intellectual ideas about generational trauma, about mass incarceration, about the prison-industrial complex, the justice system, all these coalesced in a flesh-and-blood man. And you really see all these things that [Fonny and Tish’s] families are arguing about, debating about.
One of the most visceral experiences for me in the film is when Aunjanue Ellis [who plays Fonny’s mother] is going out of the door and all she can say is, “That child, that child.” Because what world is that child going to be brought into, with the father in jail for a crime he did not commit, the mother an 18-year-old girl who doesn’t have a college degree? (Editor’s note: Tish is 19 in the film.)
And I feel like Mr. Baldwin’s writing toward almost, like, this treatise on the ways in which American society has weighed down on the lives and souls of black folks. And yeah, I think that between Stephan’s performance as Fonny, which you feel over the course of the film the vitality, the life fade from his character, and then this conversation with Brian Tyree Henry, you see the living out of just how this life-force can be corrupted and destroyed by the conditions of society.
Another scene that really stuck out to me, perhaps in part because I’m Jewish myself, is the scene with Dave Franco as a Jewish guy renting an apartment to Tish and Fonny. You’ve expanded that from a scene in the book, adding this line from Franco when asked why he treats Tish and Fonny so kindly, that he’s his “mother’s son.” Baldwin had written plenty before about Jewish and black relations in America, and I guess I was just interested in what you were trying to bring out in that scene — because, to me at least, there was something so beautiful about these characters just seeing each other.
BJ: For me, the character appears in the book and it’s so strange because at this point Baldwin just seems pissed about everything, and then this character Levy shows up and he’s just this beacon of decency, of hope and light, at a moment when Tish and Fonny need it the most, to be honest. It was always going to be a part of the film, but for whatever reason something in me rejected it somewhat. I just wanted it to be a more visceral connection between that character and Tish and Fonny.
Fonny asks, “Why are you treating two negroes so nice?” In the book there’s so much about mothers and mothering, and when I think of Moonlight and Beale Street as companion pieces, they’re these exercises about nature versus nurture. If you took Regina King’s character from Beale Street and made her the mother in Moonlight, and if you took Naomie Harris’ character in Moonlight and made her the mother in Beale Street, how would that affect the lives of those children? So with these characters, it’s like, what is it about Levy that’s making him behave this way with these kids? It’s like, oh, okay they all come from a mother, and that was where the line came from.
And I’ll tell you man, it was one of those things where I like to react to the environment. We were looking for a building that is very hard to find in New York — a building that looked the way it did in the ’70s, that Fonny could afford, and we finally found this building and the landlord came, and he was a young Jewish dude, wearing socks with his sandals, and I was like, “I’m gonna model my character after this guy.” And then I realized I wanted a Jewish actor to play the part, and I didn’t realize that Dave Franco was Jewish. I was like, “You know what? This is it, this is fuckin’ it, I want Dave Franco in our movie. He’s the big funny comedy guy, I want Dave Franco playing Levy.” So I called him up because I knew he and his brother through A24 — they were doing The Disaster Artist at the time — and I called him up and said, “Hey man, I’ve got this small part, do you want to come and do it?” And he was down for the cause.
You know, it’s interesting — so much has happened in the last few months, the world is on fire, just all these things. I’m glad that we leaned into this idea of this character and our main characters finding some common ground because I think we need more of that in the world. I’m glad you mentioned that. I don’t get to talk about that part enough, because it’s this really sweet thing that I think we all felt very connected to.
There is something, and I don’t know if it’s universal across Jewish guys or anything, but some feeling of what our families have been through, and realizing we’re all in it together. To me, it was a really interesting and beautiful idea, and I was really happy to see it realized that way in the film.
BJ: Thank you, man. It was an interesting choice for me because my whole point with this film was to have a fidelity to the text, and in the places where we stretched beyond it, we didn’t do so lightly. So that was one of the places where I felt like, we’re keeping this and we’re going to go all the way with it.
Is that stretching beyond something you think is particular to film, in terms of what film can do for a story like this?
BJ: Absolutely. I think looking Tish in the eye, looking Fonny in the eye, is an act that is so aesthetically aggressive in a certain way, that it can’t help but take whatever energy there is in the text and bring it to another place. At the very least, particularly in a contemporary context, it can make the empathy radically immediate. And I think that’s the whole point of what we’re doing.
You see that as your mission?
BJ: If I should choose to undertake it, yeah. I think for now. At some point, I just want to do big robot movies, but we’ll see when we get to that.