Barry Jenkins on If Beale Street Could Talk: 'It's like I had a contract with myself. This was the best thing to do'
- James Mottram
- 5 February 2019
Oscar-winning director discusses his critically acclaimed adaptation of James Baldwin's novel
'It still surprises me that we've ended up at this place,' remarks Barry Jenkins. The Oscar-winning director of Moonlight is back with his new film, a perfectly-judged adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. But when he first sat down to write it, several years ago, he was doing it more for pleasure. 'Then when the script was done, it just didn't make sense to not pursue it.'
This was before the Miami-set Moonlight had wowed critics and long before Warren Beatty accidentally read out 'La La Land' on the night of the Academy Awards, before realising it was Jenkins' film that had won Best Picture. Still, it meant that Jenkins had a ready-made follow-up to Moonlight and he wouldn't be swayed otherwise. 'It's like I had a contract with myself. This was the best thing to do.'
Set in the 1960s, Beale Street follows two young Harlem lovers Clementine 'Tish' Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt (Stephan James), left struggling when he's arrested for rape on trumped-up charges. Like Moonlight, it's been showered with critical praise and Oscar nominations – including Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and Best Supporting Actress for Regina King, who plays Sharon, Tish's mother.
According to Jenkins, love stories all too frequently say a lot about the people in love but not about the circumstances they live in. But Beale Street is different. 'It's about illustrating the world in which Tish and Fonny live and how that affects their love for one another. And then flips it on its head and shows how that love is the only reason they can survive in this world.'
After Raoul Peck's recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Jenkins' film is also destined to shine a light on Baldwin. 'I think that James Baldwin is the modern day William Shakespeare,' says Colman Domingo, who co-stars as Tish's father Joseph. 'He's somebody who interrogates our culture, our history, who we are as Americans.' Jenkins hopes his film will ignite renewed interest in the writer. 'I think the world will be better for it.'
Both the book and film embrace the African-American experience with great frankness, and the psychological impact of racial division. 'How are we capable of love when you consider how much suffering has been visited upon us?' ponders Jenkins, who notes the way the story shows how 'black folks have found a way to commune, to buffer each other, to protect and coalesce, around the shared experience, to create an identity that resists this defeatism and destruction'.
If all of this is a stark reminder of the troubles America has gone through recently in the wake of Charlottesville, there is a gentle strain of humanity in the film too. Beale Street is as much about healing as it is hatred. 'We have so much rage and angst and worry about our livelihood,' says Domingo. 'We need more films that, while we're grappling with all of this, remind us why we're living: to love, to be kind. There's such a kindness in this film.'
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas from Fri 8 Feb.