Barry Jenkins Sees Nature vs. Nurture at Heart of Beale Street and Moonlight

Barry Jenkins explains the echoing themes about the role of love and acceptance in our lives and in If Beale Street Could Talk.

Barry Jenkins is aware of the echoes between Moonlight and his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk. After all, he wrote them around the same time, even taking a break during the pre-production process of Moonlight to go write his first draft of If Beale Street Could Talk as a pseudo-creative therapy. Now with both of them out in the world, he is acutely able to contrast each film’s differing visions of growing up in black America. Whereas young Chiron’s lifetime of hardship and suffering begins in Moonlight when he is nearly abandoned by his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris), the central protagonist of Beale Street, Tish (KiKi Layne), has the strength of her family, spearheaded by Regina King’s fiercely maternal Sharon, to hold things together when the father of her child is falsely accused of a crime.

“It was a working out again of the nature versus nurture principle,” Jenkins tells us when discussing the humane qualities of If Beale Street Could Talk. “The mother character in Moonlight is the mother I grew up with; the mother character in Beale Street played by Regina King, Sharon, is very different from that mom. So I’ve often wondered, ‘What if Sharon was the mother in Moonlight and what if Naomie Harris was the mother in Beale Street? How would that affect the lives of the children at the center of the narrative?’”

It’s one of the many ruminations in Beale Street, which marks the first time a James Baldwin novel has been given a major film adaptation despite his profound legacy. In our full interview, which you can watch below, we discussed what drew Jenkins to If Beale Street Could Talk while still caught in Moonlight’s shimmer, but we also discussed one of Jenkins’ major additions to Baldwin’s bittersweet tale of love interrupted. In the film, Tish’s lover and would-be husband is Fonny (Stephan James), a young man who wants to build an honest life for himself and his family before the police tear him away. This includes finding a loft apartment in early ’70s SoHo before that became a trendy luxury.

In one of the film’s most wistful moments, a young landlord named Levy (Dave Franco) is the first and only white man to agree to rent to a young black couple in love. The loft is in complete derelict collapse, but he nonetheless treats them with warmth instead of cold suspicion or disdain. His explanation is “I’m my mother’s son. Maybe that’s all it is that separates us from them.” It’s a line that Jenkins personally wrote.

“That sequence between Dave Franco’s character Levy and Tish and Fonny was really important to me,” Jenkins says. “The book is quite angry and it’s a very bitter narrative in a certain way, and then this character shows up and it’s like this beacon of decency and hope, and community. There’s a connection between that character and our main characters, and I was trying to find a way to really ground that character, and this idea of nature versus nurture came to me. So the ‘us and them,’ you assume, is about black and white, but really it’s about the difference between people who have been nurtured and people who haven’t received nurturing. And I think Dave was just saying, ‘People have been decent to me, so why would I not be decent to you?’”

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It also clearly ties into Jenkins’ overarching dialogue between his two movies about the role of love and life.

“Very clearly Dave Franco’s mom, his character Levy, had a mother similar to Regina King’s character Sharon, and I think because of that they all end up on this roof. They’re all these young people brimming with life, and I think in a certain way, all our lives are about the abundance or absence of love, and I think when you look at it that way, you can find a way to connect to anyone.”

further reading: Oscars 2019: Predictions and Analysis

This is one of the movie’s many grace notes, one felt all the way to the Oscars.

This article was originally published in November 2018.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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