When Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk opens next month, it will be the first Hollywood adaptation of James Baldwin’s fiction ever put to screen. The reasons for this belated (though very welcome) embrace of one of American fiction’s great authors should be obvious, but so too is the change in the industry that Jenkins has used to make this dream project happen.
Several years after winning the Oscar for Best Picture with his essayist drama about the dysfunctional childhood of a young and closeted black man, Moonlight director Jenkins returned to the New York Film Festival stage to discuss Beale Street and the Hollywood industry at large during a thoughtful Q&A. And perhaps one of his most interesting answers regarded whether he thinks Hollywood has changed very much for African American filmmakers ever since James Baldwin struggled and failed to work in the American film industry, including with an attempted adaptation of his own for If Beale Street Could Talk.
“There have been a few different advancements that have happened in the last 10, 15 years that I think have democratized somewhat the process,” Jenkins said with measured consideration. “And I think through that democratization, you see people who were always capable of telling stories; always capable of running the show that has all female directors; always capable of directing a superhero movie that makes a bajillion dollars and that means something; always capable of making a film about a queer black boy that wins Best Picture. I think the democratization of the tools of making films, of access, it’s not that anything is different, it’s just now people can see the shit. We can make it and you can see it. And once you see it, it’s bonafide, and it always has been.”
Listing other African American filmmakers he greatly admires, including Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, John Singleton, and Spike Lee, Jenkins stressed that each filmmaker’s success has led to them consciously creating more opportunity for those coming up behind them. He even gave special appreciation for DuVernay’s rise from indie cinema to helming widely seen projects like Selma and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.
“Ava built her own route. People see Queen Sugar, but they don’t see I Will Follow, they don’t see Middle of Nowhere. This was built. Her own blood, sweat, and tears built [this way]. And then when she got in the door, she fucking took the hinges off and says, ‘Every season, 10 more women of color are going to come in behind me.’”
In Jenkins’ mind it is not about gaining access; it is that the tools are now in place for black filmmakers to “demand access through the power of their work,” which for Jenkins has led him to the serendipitous moment of finally seeing If Beale Street Could Talk reach the big screen. For the filmmaker, the realization of this project seems especially personal considering it was a film he wrote the screenplay for well before ever filming Moonlight. By his own admission, he initially went to college to be an English teacher and pursued a B.A. in literature before switching gears to his latest passion of cinema. Yet that literary foundation is clearly evident in his approach to both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, which each rely on an intimately lyrical quality that attempts to discover his characters’ interior lives. Beale Street takes a much wider sweep in this intention, however, including actual voiceover narration from the characters. This dialogue is often lifted from Baldwin’s own prose as the book’s third-person narrator, yet now they’re regularly attributed as the thoughts of heroine to Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) as well as Tish’s nigh omnipotent overview of everyone’s lives.
This choice to view the story, even more so than in the Baldwin novel, from Tish’s point-of-view was part of the challenge that most fascinated Jenkins. He similarly felt initial trepidation at the prospect of making Moonlight, because despite having roughly the same childhood background of a home shattered by a mother with drug addiction, he was not a gay man like Moonlight’s original writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. Yet that fear of challenging himself also allowed Jenkins to tap into how much more he and McCraney shared in common. By extension, If Beale Street Could Talk offered another such challenge.
“It kind of terrified me,” Jenkins said of writing and directing a film from a woman’s perspective. “At the time that I wrote these things, it was after the energy of Moonlight had pretty much burned out. So the question for me was ‘what’s terrifying? What’s scary?’ I am not a gay man, and so to step into a gay man’s shoes was terrifying. And I’d never written anything from the female perspective, so to tell a story through the female gaze and perspective was equally terrifying. It was just at that moment about ‘what am I not doing? I’m not doing these things that are outside of myself; I’m not doing these things that I feel like I’m capable of doing; I’m not taking that risk of myself.”
Hence the first draft of Beale Street became a labor of love for Jenkins, as it was written during the same year he had committed to Moonlight being his second feature—but before he found financing for the project. In fact, he wrote If Beale Street Could Talk before he even had the rights to the novel, simply for the therapeutic quality of tackling this book.
“It wasn’t a burden, because when I wrote this, I had no damn clue or idea or hope that I would ever get to make it,” Jenkins said with a small laugh. “This was one of the few times where I felt like Ms. Maxine Waters. ‘I reclaim my time.’ Because it was the summer of 2013, I had no money, my producer Adele Romanski got together a couple of thousand dollars and said, ‘What do you need to do to write this material?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I need to go somewhere where I know no one.’ So she got me a plane ticket and a few AirBnBs in Europe, and I divorced myself from the results of the experience. I just thought, ‘I don’t know anybody involved in the estate, I didn’t have the damn rights.’ I just took the novel with me and am like, ‘I’m going to write this thing and the reward is going to be the pleasure of writing it.’
“So the first draft of it, there was no James Baldwin, no nothing, there was no Moonlight. There was no pressure at all, the thing existed unto itself. And it was one of the most pure times of my life, because all these outside things, all these outside pressures and opinions that we allow to dictate, in effect, how we respond to our own work, how we feel about our own work, it just wasn’t there. It was just me and the characters. I wrote Moonlight in 10 days, I wrote this in four weeks.”
The result is a screenplay he was very fond of, especially after learning some of Baldwin’s own initial notes when he tried adapting Beale Street into a screenplay corresponded with his own choices, such as a shifting voiceover narration… and with a director’s wishlist that included François Truffaut and Lloyd Richards, but no yet-to-be born Jenkins.
Baldwin passed away in 1987 and never saw a major film adaptation of his work, but Jenkins seems comfortable with the weight of the pressure of translating the author to the screen. It also holds true to his ethos of putting messages worth sharing into the world, because he freely admits the visual medium, whether via film, television, or even advertising on your smartphone, has replaced the printed word as the dominant medium.
“It’s moving visual imagery. This imagery is very seductive, very seductive. Like sometimes the housing, like literally the craft that’s delivering the message, is so seductive, you don’t understand the message you are receiving. That is a very, very dangerous thing. That’s why when we make these films, whether you think the films are worthwhile or meritorious, or actually have something to say, I try to do everything I can in my power to make them as visually sound, as aurally sound, as anything screening on 4,000 screens made for a bajillion dollars.
“Because this is what we’re competing with, and if the message is not there, then it’s going to be here, but if you’re used to seeing imagery that is of a certain level, of a certain craft, then you go, ‘Oh, this message must be right and this one must be wrong, because it looks it; because it sounds funny.’ So I think we’re living in a very precarious situation. Because so much of this information is coming from the medium I work in, there’s an even greater responsibility to be responsible for the things I put into those images.”
He put more than a little heart into If Beale Street Could Talk, which we reviewed right here out of TIFF. The film will premiere for NYFF at the Apollo Theater tomorrow, Oct. 9. The picture will open nationwide on Nov. 30.
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