Bringing James Baldwin to the big screen is no easy task, but two years after the success of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins does so vividly with If Beale Street Could Talk, a Harlem-set love story following the tribulations and passion between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). “Barry Jenkins has created a film both tender and tough, with a time, a place, and a story to lose oneself in,” Christopher Schobert said in his review. “Sublime in its depiction of an emotional connection and subtle in its layers of systematic oppression, Beale Street is a major work from a filmmaker whose gifts are clearly boundless.”
We spoke with Jenkins about the process of adapting Baldwin’s novel into a film. He admits it was impossible to unpack every bit of meaning from the novel, but where ideas couldn’t translate to images, he worked with composer Nicholas Britell to create musical vehicles for those ideas. We also discuss Beale Street and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman use of closing montages to encapsulate their stories, and how Gordon Parks’ photo Ellen Crying brought life to the children of Harlem in Jenkins’ film.
The Film Stage: In your New York Film Festival talk this year, you mentioned Jean-Luc Godard’s influence on you in film school. Will you elaborate on it?
I think it’s not as clear a stylistic influence as someone Wong Kar-wai or Claire Denis, but I remember very early in my time as a film student watching Weekend and Breathless. I had no concept of film history or film theory at that point, so it was quite eye-opening. I assumed a film had to conform to a certain standard, a certain set of principles and watching Godard I realized that’s clearly not the case.
I was just listening to Beale Street’s soundtrack and looking at the song titles, there’s some definite biblical language in there (‘Eden,’ ‘Jezebel’) and language from Antiquity (‘Philia,’ ‘Eros’). While I was watching the movie, I thought Colman Domingo’s character Joseph is very much the Moses of his family and Regina King’s Sharon is like Joshua. Was that in the novel or was that something intentional that you put in the film?
It’s a combination of all of those elements. A lot of that is definitely in the source material. Mr. Baldwin is a really dense thinker, so there’s a lot to be unpacked in the novel, and it’s never going to be impossible to unpack all of that in the film, so some of those things are present but they’re not literally the text, so a lot of it remains to be unearthed. I think that with the titling and score, the thing I love about working with Nicholas Britell, our composer, is that he’s really diligent about not imposing music upon the film but instead reflecting the energy of what the film is presenting to the audience, what the actors and the characters are doing. So a lot of these elements of naming the score after these different things from Antiquity, as you put it, was deliberate because that was the energy we felt we were getting from the source material and the actors putting into their performances.
I’ve thought a lot about Colman Domingo’s character and performance, and his vocal performance… what he’s doing with his dialect is Laurence Olivier-level. It’s so good.
The Baldwinian language is very tricky to be honest. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s not far off, depending on how you look at it, depending on your impression of vernacular. I think Colman is somebody who is really great at speaking what’s in front of him but speaking it in a way that bends to the will of his performance, of his essence in a certain way. So you’re right, it’s interesting because Tish (KiKi Layne) is narrating the film, she is the literally the voice of God, but when Colman shows up but he’s almost like an apostle. The movie is about Tish and Fonny and you have all these characters orbiting around them and I think that Colman does such much with a very streamlined amount of lines and screen time. I think what he contributes is just as important as what Kiki Layne or Stephan James contributes.
Like you were saying, what’s on the page is specific and so dense and difficult to unpack; how much of Baldwin’s diction shaped the screenplay and what made it onto screen?
It affected the script quite a bit. The whole goal with the piece was to reflect the evocative nature of Mr. Baldwin’s prose. Now we weren’t literally approaching the structure in the sense that we had to directly reflect the structure of the novel, and yet, I think the energy of it was something that was very important to us. Quite a few of the actors kept the novel with them on set and during post, myself, Joi and Nat, our editors, did as well. I think what Baldwin was doing in much of his writing, especially in this novel, was trying to create literature that functioned in the stream of consciousness in a certain way. Moonlight is told from Chiron’s point of view, Beale Street is told from Tish’s point of view. That then orients you on a certain level of consciousness. I think consciousness is something that is very fluid—it’s almost cliche to say—like jazz. I do think we took our marching orders in that regard from the very jazzy nature of Mr. Baldwin’s writing.
Outside of the massive success of Black Panther, the two most prominent African-American films this year are BlacKkKlansman and your film, and both films end with a montage. BlacKkKlansman’s places the movie firmly within modern politics but Beale Street ends with contextualizing what happens to Tish and Fonny within the era it’s based.
That is interesting. I can’t speak to Spike’s choice with the Charlottesville footage in BlacKkKlansman. It’s incredibly effective and it takes the main storyline from the past into the present. I think our photo montage operates a bit differently. I think the reason for that is the second montage in our film was never intended to be a montage in our film. I heard Spike say the Charlottesville footage was never intended to end BlacKkKlansman, but then he saw the footage and he understood it was the way he wanted to end the film.
For me, when I was first starting to adapt the novel, I was reminded of a short film directed by a friend Patricia Riggen who won a student Academy Award for a short documentary she made called A Family Portrait, that was based on Gordon Parks’s work the Fontenelle family, this photo essay he did for LIFE magazine. And there was this image in Mr. Parks’ work called “Ellen Crying” and when I was reading the novel there was this monologue that is also in the film, this narration where Tish’s describing the children of our age, we actually named a piece of score after it. As she was describing the life of the children of Harlem are forced to lead, I just saw this image of “Ellen Crying” and it made things very clear for me.
Mr. Parks’ photo essay is a documentary, those are real people. Fonny is a fictional character but he is representative of a lot of children who lived through this time, and I wanted to show those children. A really lovely thing happens where you make a film and a film evolves and it starts to dictate what it wants to be, and we had this really amazing sequence with Brian Tyree Henry in the middle of the film, and it was very clear to me that the children of our age in the first montage become the men who are fed into the system near the end of the film. I wanted to mirror, I wanted to rhyme that image to show the journey that these children sometimes are forced to undergo. The first montage is roughly four and a half minutes from the very beginning of the film and the second montage is roughly four and a half minutes from the end credits. So it seemed like the appropriate mirror for the film, for the journey Fonny is going through.
Having shot Beale Street in Harlem, how would you compare life in Harlem in the 1970s depicted in the film to the community you experienced while filming?
It’s changed quite a bit. Due to gentrification obviously, it’s changed quite a bit. The spirit of Harlem hopefully will always be the sprout of Harlem, but this time period, in particular, was very different than the world of Harlem we found today in making the film. Now that’s a physical thing. I think the people of Harlem, that spirit, that energy will always be there but there are some bitter pills that must be swallowed. The sequence where first meet Brian Tyree Henry’s character Daniel Cardy, him and Stephan James’s character Fonny are meeting on the sidewalk in front of this amazing row of brownstones on Lenox Avenue which have always been there, and yet, a block north there’s now a Whole Foods, so some things are the same and many things are changing as well, and yet the spirit of Harlem is intact.
Were any of Baldwin’s thoughts on cinema in Notes on a Native Son or The Devil Finds Work percolating in your head while you made Beale Street?
It was a little bit. Not trying to create a piece of work that will engineer a certain response, so thinking of criticism while making a film is a slippery slope, it’s a trap in a certain way. You have to make the thing, the vision you think deserves to be made and let go of it when you release it into the world. I will say his thoughts on cinema were a part of it in an almost latent way. When you adapt someone, especially someone who is no longer with us and this person is one of my heroes, it’s hard not to have this voice in the back of your head like, “What would Baldwin do?” and I think in the example of his film criticism, he never made a film that I know of, but in his criticism I could see some answers of what would Baldwin do. And in some places it was let these scenes lay out and let these characters speak and look at one another in a way that shows a very intimate connection among the characters.
If Beale Street Could Talk is now in limited release and expanding on Christmas Day.