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Barry Jenkins on Adapting James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, The Film's Timeliness and more

If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, is writer/director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” In an interview with RogerEbert.com, he talked about the stunning moment where Regina King as Sharon prepares for an important confrontation and about one scene where he needed to depart from the book because it did not go far enough.

We do not often see characters like these filmed with such lush, romantic cinematography. It made me think of the 1950s films of Douglas Sirk.

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I think that's fair. I did feel that more in the first act, which is different in a certain way than the second act. There is this scene in the first act where these two families are together and it's peak, peak, peak melodrama. I felt like we should lean in and allow these characters to go to this place that I felt like they went to while reading the book. But a film is a very resilient form and I felt like once we got past that we can then reset and now we’re in a different feeling and a different place. 

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures; ©2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I was very struck by the scene where Regina King is putting on her wig and taking it off. She is dressing herself as though she is going into battle. 

For me it's a very faithful adaptation of what Baldwin wrote. There was this sequence where she goes to Puerto Rico. It's a little bit different; it's like this shawl she's putting on and taking off. She's unsure. For much of the story Sharon is all knowing, she's all-powerful; whenever there's a situation she's the one who says, “Okay, when your dad comes home I'll tell him” and while sitting around the table and when the family comes over she is in charge—“Oh, you get this drink, you get that drink.” When this act of domestic violence happens she sends the men out: “Joe, we don't need you here,” and she goes right to the door, locks it and then she's the Master of Ceremonies. So she's always on top of things. There are a lot of black women that I can reference in my life who are just carrying all this weight, shouldering this burden for everyone and then finally at a certain point that has to take a toll. 

So I felt like there needs to be this moment where you can just see the weight, this pressure, the vulnerability that this person has to have; she can't be a superhero. We needed to find a very simple metaphor to show that something's breaking and so it was about Sharon who is always so sure of herself. She's a very fully realized person but then she goes to Puerto Rico and she starts to doubt what's the best presentation of her. I was trying to find a very simple visual way to reference that which I think speaks to again how it's almost unfucking fair that this woman has to carry all this weight and shoulder this burden and it's unfair that so many other black women I grew up around have to carry all this weight and shoulder all these burdens. That's what it was about and I think Regina understood that. It's a very simple scene. We only did two setups and the two angles that are in the film are the two angles that we did. I didn't do very many of them because she just knew what it was and it is a very important scene in the body of the movie as well because it is not just about her. All this pressure that everyone is undergoing—at some point it's got to affect people and I think you see it very clearly affect Sharon in that moment.

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Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where they're in the loft with the young landlord after so many rejections. It is so delicate and charming.

The character was in the book but it's one of the few places in the translation that I'll say I felt it didn't go just far enough for me and so as I was walking around the space I just had this thought in my head like, “How in the hell could you possibly see a way to turn this into a home?” Then I realized, “Oh, but what says love and faith more than a lover saying, ‘I promise I can do this’ and you say ‘Okay, yes I believe you,’” So that's when we added this whole thing of how we're going to make this into a home and then him showing where he's going to put all these things and then I was like, “Oh, it feels kind of cute let's just go all the way with this pantomiming with the fridge,” and when we did it, there was something so lovely about watching Dave Franco and Stephan James perform this kind of joke in a certain way which was rooted in love and faith that when we got to the roof it also seemed like, “Okay, and now these characters feel connected. How can we take it one step further?”

This idea of mothers in the film is so important. Tish has a mother and she is pregnant, Fonny has a mother, Victoria Rogers, the woman who’s been sexually assaulted, she's pregnant. She’s not showing but she's pregnant. It's all this idea of mothers. I thought, “Oh, here is something that I can see uniting these characters,” and that’s when we gave Dave Franco the line, "I'm just my mother's son." Sometimes it's that idea that makes the difference between us and them; not black and white but people who have been loved and the people who haven't.

This was adapted with I think much respect and deference to Mr. Baldwin, but that was one of the places where I'm really proud of how I was able to fuse my voice and his.

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures Copyright ©2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The book was written about 50 years ago. What makes it so timely right now? It really feels very of the moment. 

All praise to Mr. Baldwin who was such an erudite thinker, and was so clear about what he felt was actually going on in America especially as it relates to the lives and souls of black folks. A lot of those problems and those issues have continued to persist. Case in point: Stephan James who plays the character Fonny, he's very clear about saying that he modeled his performance on the story of Kalief Browder, which is only two years old. Kalief was a kid who was arrested for stealing a backpack, a backpack he did not steal. He refused to take a plea deal or plead guilty to something he did not do, so he spent three years in jail, two and a half in solitary confinement and then he committed suicide. Had he accepted a plea he might have done eight months or a year. So I think so many of these problems still persist. I even saw a review of the film that was very flippant about the idea of Fonny accepting this plea and it really pissed me off, because Kalief Browder potentially could have accepted this plea but that would be heinously wrong because he did nothing and he's not the only one. 

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I think when you create a scenario where it's about winning and losing and then winning and losing is incentivized by a privatized sort of law enforcement industry then you have a situation that can just become disastrous. In 1974 we didn't even have the Internet, computers, and cameras and all these things to document it, so I can imagine how rapid the injustice was then. But something like what happened to Kalief Browder can still happen today. 

And yet it is a movie about love and hope. But it also acknowledges injustice and despair. What was really rewarding about making this film or not necessarily rewarding but invigorating was I told all the actors, “You don't have to divorce yourself from the source material. I love this book. If you want to come to me and talk about a scene that is not in this book because you feel like it should be in the performance, yes let's do it.” And to a woman and man, everybody in this film and people you wouldn't even think like Pedro Pascal is a Baldwin fanatic, Ed Skrein, the guy who plays the cop, is a Baldwin fanatic. I feel like their love for Baldwin brought so much to the performances ... like the sensuality in a certain way that Baldwin very clearly represents in the text that is in the scene if you know where to look, that sensuality between the officer and Tish and between the officer and Fonny. 

It is always tricky to use literary narration in a film but it works so well here.

A big part of it was the poetry of Baldwin's language, for sure, but I also felt like in reading the book as much as it is Tish's point of view it’s also his and I think their voices fuse in the interior life of the character. Cinema is not the best medium for interiority but in doing a literary adaptation, especially with this author where the interior voice was so key to his work, I felt like it was okay to bring that into the film in the way that we did it. I felt like it couldn't be delicate about it, it just had to be what it was. Seeing “I Am Not Your Negro” gave me confidence that we were on the right path because I think ten minutes into that film you forget it's Sam Jackson [narrating]—it's basically James Samuel Jackson Baldwin III in a certain way.

This adaptation was more about James Baldwin than it was about Barry Jenkins. People don't read as much as they used to; they watch everything. I felt like if this film was going to introduce people to the work of James Baldwin—I'm trying to say that with as little arrogance as possible. It's not my job to introduce people to James Baldwin—but I felt like this likely was going to be an introduction to his work, and so his voice should arrive with the piece intact.

In post-production, it was a process. There's so much voiceover that there were some times where I was allowing Baldwin to speak too clearly and that was obscuring what the actors were doing. And so there were places where we had voiceovers that we took out and there were places that we didn't have voiceovers where we felt like, “I think we should accentuate this somehow because what Baldwin has to say about this moment is very clear.” It actually was the most challenging aspect of finishing the film I'll say, but also the most rewarding. 

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Credit: Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures

I was already a fan of Stephan James after "Race," but KiKi Layne was new to me, and they are both marvelous. Tell me about casting them.

The biggest thing for me in casting the film was in the book it's very clear these two characters are soul mates. You don't get this depiction of black soul mates as often as you do other cultures or other races and so it was very important that these two read as soulmates. So that was one of the most important things for me and then this idea of the love being very pure. In the second prison scene you do see them sort of come apart a bit, you see the friction where she's trying to be patient and explain and he snaps. He's frustrated and then it makes her frustrated and you can feel, “This love that's so pure and so beautiful, this might break.” I'm really proud of both those kids because they're very young and they don't have a lot of experience but I think they brought their full selves to it and I don't think the movie would have worked without them.

I told KiKi that Tish is both a girl and a woman, that she’s speaking from two perspectives at once in the film. And that it’s as important for you to see everything anew in scene but also important for you to very quickly understand that you have to very rapidly evolve and protect this child and protect your lover from all these things. That's very intellectual—I just told her to be present in that everyone who was around her was there to help her. And so this really lovely thing started to happen. KiKi is very new to the process and all these actors, Colman Domingo, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, surround her. And so as Teyonah and Colman and Regina started nurturing KiKi through the process, you see that nurturing come through and bleed into the film and into the performance. It was just about her, and then by the time you get to the end, now she is the woman whose strength is carrying the family. 

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