A year ago, just before Barry Jenkins started production on If Beale Street Could Talk, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s fifth novel, he received a package from Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister and literary executor. It contained a leather-bound notebook, dated 1978, with the author’s thoughts on how to turn the book into a film. His directors of choice included photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, French New Wave master François Truffaut, and Lloyd Richards, Broadway’s first black director.
Jenkins, who is 39, wasn’t even born when Baldwin wrote these notes, but he feels preordained to direct Beale Street, the first English-language film adaptation of the acclaimed author’s fiction. If Jenkins’s first feature, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, a tale of rising housing costs in San Francisco, foretold a gift for hard-won lyricism, his second, Moonlight—about a young boy reckoning with his sexuality in the Miami projects—fulfilled it. The film earned Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali), and—after a bizarre mix-up with La La Land—Best Picture.
Moonlight’s success has opened plenty of doors—Jenkins is now at work on an 11-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel Underground Railroad for Amazon. But his concept for Beale Street took root before the success of Moonlight, in the summer of 2013, when a friend sent him a copy of the book. A best seller upon its release in 1974, the novel tells the story of a pregnant 19-year-old girl, Tish, who works with her family to prove the innocence of Fonny, her boyfriend, who’s thrown in prison after he’s wrongly accused of rape. In October, as part of the New York Film Festival, If Beale Street Could Talk made its U.S. premiere at the Apollo Theater, in Baldwin’s native Harlem. (It went into wide release on November 30th.) “Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become,” Baldwin once wrote. Here, Jenkins walks us through those same streets, pointing out the parallels between Baldwin’s time and our own, and demonstrating why these stories are worth telling now more than ever.
Let’s start with the artfulness of this film. That’s what you do—Moonlight is also extremely artful. But this one seems even more so. There are times when you linger on a record, a sweater, a dress. It mirrors what we get out of Baldwin, how we can just luxuriate in the sentences.
The way Baldwin builds sentences is lush. When James Laxton, our cinematographer, and I start a film, we have references from the movies. With Moonlight it was a lot of Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Claire Denis. But with this film, it was the text. I’m glad you mentioned the sweater, the faces, the hair, because Baldwin lingers on those things. He’ll take 50 words to describe the Hunt sisters’ dresses as they walk in the room. One of the lovely things about cinema is you can have the circumstance, the plot, but you’re also looking at people—flesh and blood, sound and image. When you see Stephan James and KiKi Layne—they look so innocent, so full of love for each other, it makes the circumstances that have befallen them that much more of a gut punch. There are so many works of Baldwin’s that could be adapted, but I chose this one because of the innocence and lushness in the romance and then the gut punch: a truthful depiction of systemic injustice.
How did you start to adapt the novel?
It was the same time I started to adapt Moonlight—2013, five years after my first film, Medicine for Melancholy. I got a little bit of money together and I flew to Brussels, then I took a train to Lyon, a train to Berlin, and a train to Brussels before flying back home. The point of the trip was to adapt Beale Street, which I didn’t even have the rights to at the time. But I decided to adapt it anyway. I started by adapting Moonlight. I don’t know what it was about that trip, but I was so open and fierce that within 10 days Moonlight was finished. Never been able to repeat that kind of expediency in my life. When it was done, I took a train to Berlin, and it was so warm, there was so much love. And that’s where I adapted Beale Street.
I’ve always loved trains. There was a point that I don’t really talk about very early in my career, around 2005. I moved to L.A. after film school and got a job at Oprah’s company, Harpo Films. After two years, I was stuck. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. When I graduated film school I’d gotten a $5,000 scholarship, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll go backpacking through Europe.” But $5,000 wasn’t going to get me very far. So I used that money to move to L.A., got this job. After two years, I thought, “You know, I think that trip is worthwhile.” I cashed out my 401(k). Took a huge tax hit, but I had a couple grand. So I bought train tickets around the country—all Amtrak. I outlined the country in seven months and ended up back in San Francisco. I needed to clear my head. I needed to do a walkabout. And I did that by just hopping Amtraks, man.
And what did you learn on the walkabout? Or train-about?
There was something missing from my life. I’d stumbled into film at Florida State and became obsessed. When I moved to L.A., it was a rude awakening, like, “Oh yeah, this is a business. It’s an industry. It’s not just kids making passion projects on the weekend.” I wasn’t prepared for that. I hadn’t lived enough life. So I took trains and met people. The first time I saw an Amish person was on an Amtrak train. The first time I had a conversation with a Republican was on an Amtrak train. I was going through Nebraska, and we started talking about college football because he was a Nebraska fan. Then I went back to San Francisco, and two years later I made my first feature. Because of that experience, when I went to Europe to adapt Beale Street, I knew I would take trains.
How long did it take you to write Beale Street?
Four weeks. It was a first draft, not the script that we just made. I worked on it with the producers, then I sent it to the Baldwin estate. To my surprise, a typewritten letter came back a couple months later. It was like, “Hey, it was very nice to hear from you. We saw you made this film Medicine from Melancholy. We’d love to see it. And we’ll just keep in touch.” That started this multiyear process of everyone in the estate watching my work, reading my script, and giving me their blessing.
You’d think the success of Moonlight would have opened the doors. But this was already in motion before all that?
Yeah, they loved Medicine for Melancholy. I was like, “Here’s a film I made, here’s the script all ready. I’m not just saying this is a faithful adaptation—here’s the script, you can see that it is. If you say no, then we’ll just burn it and that’s fine.” It was a very open, diligent process. It took a couple years.
They must get a lot of people knocking on the door. Why did they say yes to you?
Maybe because I was a nice guy, I don’t know. I came to them humbly. I wrote the script on spec to show them how serious I was. At that point I had only made one super-low-budget film. And if you look up any statement that the Baldwin estate has made about my adaptation of Beale Street, they don’t really mention Moonlight. They mention Medicine for Melancholy. Which to me is the most supreme vote of confidence.
You probably could have gotten a lot of stars, but you cast two relative newcomers, KiKi Layne and Stephan James. Why’d you do that?
When I write a screenplay, I rarely see actors in roles. Now, in this book, Baldwin is very descriptive about what Tish and Fonny look like. But for me, casting is a meritocracy, or at least it should be. Every actor who comes in the door should have an equal opportunity to earn the part. And both Stephan and KiKi walked in and showed me who their characters were.
I’m going to give a spoiler. You end with Fonny in prison. The tone is “We’re getting by, we’re accepting it, it could have been way worse.” It’s so heartbreaking and yet so black.
The novel ends a bit differently, but I wanted to give the audience a more definitive closing to the saga. And you’re right, it could have been so much worse. I like that in the final tableau you see that the family has not been broken. They’re still together. Even though I’m sure that life will never be the same, it’ll still be a life. That was important to me. But by the same token, you think of someone like Kalief Browder [who was wrongly imprisoned at age 16 and committed suicide after his release]. He refused to plead to something he did not do, and they kept him locked up for three whole years. I have no doubt it ate away at him and his humanity. That’s why, instead of setting the story in a contemporary time, I wanted it to remain in the period it was written and set—to show how little things have changed. I wanted to show that if the predicament Fonny was facing can still happen to Kalief Browder, just think about how tough the system was 50 years ago. And yet the family is not broken. It’s a bittersweet ending. I think there’s hope in it.
You’ve been working on this for so long, yet it really fits the current times—mass incarceration, sexual violence, figuring out who’s telling the truth. It’s like the ball bounced in your direction to make the film of the moment.
That’s a testament to Baldwin. I think if this movie had been made in 1983 or 2003, it still would have been relevant. It’s not just that the work has somehow fallen in step with the times. I think the times have caught up to Baldwin. All these things he was talking about were already proliferating in 1974, when this book was published. It’s just that we’re only now having this reckoning. I think even if this movie was held for another two years, it’d still be relevant. If very little changed from 1974 to 2018, how much change do you think there’ll be from 2018 to 2020?
Can we talk about Moonlight? I love that film. It’s not every day we see a black male story with such complexity and humanity and subtlety and power. It’s amazing.
Thank you. I tip my hat to Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the source material. I don’t think I would have had the strength to be as open and as honest about the really dark things—about my past and Tarell’s past—as he was. How people respond to Moonlight is a reflection of how open and raw and honest Tarell was, the power and the potency of his world.
The third act is very quiet. There’s so much happening under the surface.
There are all these peaks in the first two acts, and you can go into repose in the third act because you know the character, you know all these things broiling beneath the surface. As opposed to turning the dial up, let’s simmer. And let’s understand that this dish can be ruined just as quickly on a simmer as it can on high heat. It’s way more tense to watch at a simmer.
In both Beale Street and Moonlight you touch on the fragility of black manhood. It can be lost or damaged so easily. In Moonlight, Chiron was put in a horrible situation. He probably wasn’t on his way to becoming a thug, but a situation led him to react, he was thrown in prison, and that criminalized him.
I didn’t even think about the parallel until you just said it—and it’s going to make both these films sound super heavy—but the specter of prison hangs over both Moonlight and Beale Street. Like the scene in Beale Street when Fonny runs into Daniel [Brian Tyree Henry] on the street and they have this 12-minute scene of two black men talking. It’s about what’s ultimately lost when young men fall into these situations, often for no reason at all, or very sinister reasons on behalf of the “system.” It’s about two black men meeting and saying, “Hey, what’s going on, bro?” “I’m good.” It always starts with “I’m good.” But if you spend enough real time in the moment after “I’m good,” “I’m good” starts to take on different connotations. “I’m good, but ...” “I’m good, and ...” “I’m good, and now here’s what I really am.” We shot that sequence in one day. They go from cracking jokes and drinking beer on the sidewalk to showing how broken, how scarred the character is.
Where’s the Oscar?
It’s at my house, man. I took it off the floor; it’s on top of a speaker now. It’s nice to have a reminder of the unexpected success, the unprecedented success of a low-budget film, the first LGBT film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. But I’ve always been about the process, not the result. It would be the same film whether we won or La La Land won. I try not to idolize totems. It’s strange to have an Oscar in my apartment for a thing I made with my friends, but I’m trying to find a spot for it. The other thing is that it’s the past, and now it’s time to move on.
But it has changed your career.
It has changed my career. It has. I think being granted the right to make Beale Street had very little to do with Moonlight. I’ll tip my hat to the estate in that regard. But the resources we were able to command to make this film were certainly affected by the success of Moonlight.
Now everyone in Hollywood takes your call, right?
[Laughs.] I can’t say everybody, but most. Your career changes from trying to get people to say yes to being diligent and smart and wise about saying no. That’s the task now.
Can I ask about that night at the Oscars? You lived it, we all saw it.
I was looking for the next Amtrak train heading out of town. The midnight train to anywhere.
At home, I was thinking, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot of commotion happening on the screen. People with headsets are running around.” I thought that something was wrong, but I had no idea what it was. Surely you had no idea what it was.
Even less of an idea, because we couldn’t see the feed at home.
So when the La La Land producer, Jordan Horowitz, says, “It’s Moonlight,” what are you feeling?
There’s an image of my face in disbelief. It wasn’t until he started walking toward us, and he said, “Literally.” Because I know that guy, I trust him. When he said, “Literally, this is not a joke,” I was like, “Oh, wow.” I thought, “This can’t be real. There are so many awards shows, and there’s never a mistake of this magnitude.”
A lot of people have said that it’s a victory for you, it’s a victory for black people to have this really black film win, but the way it won robbed you of something. Not the normal Barry gets up and everyone cheers, but this weird, disjointed, What’s going on? situation. Did you feel that? Obviously it wasn’t purposeful. But the way it played out ...
Intellectually, no. Emotionally, sure. And that’s the thing I can’t rid myself of. Because I remember viscerally what that felt like, and you can’t alter that.
How did it feel?
It’s too intellectual to say I was robbed of something. It’s just that this should have been a moment of pure celebration. And instead, it was confusion. And to be honest, it was hurtful to those guys. Just a very strange thing.
How do you relate to the La La Land folks after they’ve had that triumph taken away?
I saw Damien Chazelle in Toronto. We ended up at the same photo shoot, and right away—it’s funny for somebody I don’t know super well—we now have this thing that binds us. When I give Damien a hug, it’s like a hug, you know? And the image that’s stuck in my mind is Jordan Horowitz about to hand me his Oscar, which is a really brutal thing to say, and we hug, and I’m bald, and he’s bald. It’s like two animals. We put our foreheads together, on stage, at the Oscars, among all these people. We’re just swaying with our foreheads together, and we silently part and go hug other people.
I look at you as part of an amazing moment in black visual culture. This year we’ve had you and Steve McQueen. Spike Lee is back. Boots Riley comes with something amazing.
You’ve got Black Panther, you’ve got Ava DuVernay with every damn thing she’s doing. You’ve got The Hate U Give. My homeboy is back, George Tillman. Dee Rees just came out with Mudbound last year, and I’m sure she’s got something in the can right now. Stella Meghie had her film. Donald Glover.
Why are there so many black people in Hollywood able to make really good black films right now?
I think it’s a testament to a shifting approach to opening doors. I’ll use Ava as the prime example. Ava built her own path. She made a $50,000 film, then she made a sub–$1 million film, and then she made Selma. Once she got through the third part of that cycle, she was like, “And now I’m going to build an empire.” She started this company called Array Now to release films, and then she said, “I’m going to start this television show and every director on it is going to be a woman. Not only that, I’m going to give women who haven’t had a chance to direct television a chance to direct television.” Why? Because it’s assumed if people have never done it they can’t. She’s like, “No. I’ve done this. It’s not rocket science. They’ve made indie films. It’s the same thing.” And now there are three seasons of the show, and you have like 30 women who are going on to direct television and will eventually direct new features of their own. Opening a door and letting it close behind you is off the table now. Now, you open a door and everyone comes in with you. Because it’s never been about ability or aptitude. It’s been about access.
Did Oprah open the door for you?
At Harpo Films I was hired by a director named Darnell Martin, who made a film called I Like It Like That. She did Prison Song, Cadillac Records, the Oz pilot. She opened the door. Darnell’s always wanted assistants who didn’t have access. A lot of us were from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they say. I was like the poster child for a Darnell Martin pet project. I worked at Harpo while Darnell was adapting Their Eyes Were Watching God—she directed it with Halle Berry. She gave me my first job in the industry, and I learned so much.
But people have been trying to pull others up for a long time. What’s different now that’s leading to so many great black films?
Two things. One, there are people behind the scenes. If you go to Walt Disney, there’s an executive there named Tendo Nagenda who I came up with. [In October, Nagenda became a V.P. at Netflix.] This person is now a person in power who can actually greenlight projects. At Walt Disney, the biggest studio in the world. It’s no surprise that Ava DuVernay directed A Wrinkle In Time at Disney. That Mira Nair directed Queen of Katwe at Disney. You’re seeing it at all different levels. It used to just be in front of the camera and a couple people behind the camera. Now you’ve got people in front of the camera, behind the camera, in the writers’ room, in the studio. Besides that, there’s a minor league system: The camera phone is a better camera than the one I made my first feature with. So all these people who didn’t have access to these tools can make work. Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele and I’ll include myself—we see these people making indie films and we go, “Oh, that was me. So I’m going to help you.” There’s a whole ecosystem now.
So people are helping more.
Look at Spike right now. Spike has BlacKkKlansman, which is probably going to be nominated for 8,000 awards. Produced by Jordan Peele. This guy comes off of having this smash $200 million film, and what does he do? He takes one of the icons of black cinema and goes, “Oh, here’s this project I think you’d be a good fit for. Let me help you make this.” Spike’s biggest hit since Inside Man. It’s an ecosystem, man. Nobody wants to be successful alone.
Is there a film or a moment that made Hollywood say, “Oh yeah, let’s green-light these, these are going to work”?
There had been that film over and over again. It used to be one kind of film, and even then the cycle would always reset. It’d be like, “Yeah, but that was an aberration.” Now you look at a film like Crazy Rich Asians—we’re seeing that it’s not so much about the films, it’s about the audience. The audience is hungry for all kinds of things we’ve allowed ourselves to believe there isn’t an audience for. Look at Moonlight, which was made for a million dollars and grossed $70 million worldwide, and it’s like, “No, people just want to see stories.”
You deal in the power of images. And so many images in the last five years have been these horrific iPhone films or dashboard films of us—black men—being killed. And someone like you is here to transform that and give us beautiful, complex images of blackness.
I had this conversation with [the writer] Darryl Pinckney this morning. We were talking about how a lot of literature is much more interior than cinema. Yet cinema has become the dominant way we receive information, whether it’s a movie, a television show, an advertisement, or a clip on your phone. Some of that imagery is often funneled into a very slender prison. Some of it is very dark. When we’re telling stories about folks who aren’t normally seen in certain kinds of media—it’s not that we have a responsibility to tell beautiful, happy stories—but we have to fill in the full picture. Because if we don’t, I don’t know who will.