“If Beale Street Could Talk,” writer/director Barry Jenkins’s stunning cinematic adaptation of the novel by legendary gay author James Baldwin, got its start when Jenkins was dumped by a college girlfriend.
As the award-winning director of “Moonlight” recalls, “She was smarter, wiser, beautiful. I don’t know what she was doing with me.”
It didn’t last long.
“I was an idiot and she broke up with me,” he says. “She told me, ‘You need to read James Baldwin.’ I had painted myself into such a small box. I think she was telling me, ‘You need to grow.’”
She recommended he start with “Giovanni’s Room” (about an interracial gay relationship) and “The Fire Next Time” (a book of essays about race and religion in America).
“That was my entry point to Baldwin,” he says, “so that’s what I’m going to tell other folks. For your first experience with Baldwin, start there.”
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” the first English-language cinematic adaptation of a Baldwin novel, tracks the romance between Clementine “Tish” Rivers (played by newcomer KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). Tish and Fonny are childhood friends who fall in love as adults, but their happiness is shattered when Fonny is falsely accused of rape by a racist white policeman. As Tish and her family fight to prove Fonny’s innocence, she discovers she’s pregnant with his child.
In adapting Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Jenkins says he wanted to pay homage to the thoughtful and passionate way Baldwin constructed his narrative.
“From the very beginning, the lives of black people in America have always been so deeply rooted in degradation and despair and yet we have always managed to manifest joy and love and build community,” he says. “I felt that on one hand we could paint with a brush that was very dark and reference that despair but on the other hand, we could paint with a brush that was leaning into this joy, this love, this beauty. Not that they go hand in hand, but I feel that they are both facts of the black experience.”
This approach to Baldwin shaped every aspect of Jenkins’ cinematic adaptation.
For example, Jenkins wanted the film to reflect the two different voices Baldwin uses in the book. According to the Academy Award-winning screenwriter, “one is very lush and sensual, very passionate about romance and romanticism. The other is a clear-eyed social critique, especially of how the American government treats the lives and souls of black folks.”
The novel is narrated by Tish, but Jenkins notes that, “even though the story is told from Tish’s perspective, a lot of times it’s really Baldwin speaking through her. Film is not the best medium for interiority; literature is. But there was an opportunity to bring this interiority from the novel to the screen through the use of voiceover narration. We could bring Baldwin to the screen fully intact.”
Jenkins’ decision to use voiceover narration led to a challenge in casting the character of Tish.
“In the film,” Jenkins says, “Tish speaks with two voices. In the present-day scenes, she’s experiencing everything for the first time. She’s very innocent, almost naïve. But in the narration, where her voice fuses with Baldwin’s, she’s speaking from just a step removed. She’s gained experience. I wanted to have someone who could have this fresh innocence and yet speak in this wise way, the girl and the woman. When I saw Kiki’s audition tape, I felt I saw all those things.”
In addition to his skills as a writer and director, Jenkins is known for his sensitive and thoughtful presentations of black masculinity. Jenkins credits his colleagues for helping him to explore this challenging territory.
“Tarrel Alvin McCraney and James Baldwin have written these wonderful scenarios. I don’t know if it’s because Tarrel and Mr. Baldwin are both black gay men, but I know they are writers who want to push their characters to reveal their deepest truest selves. I feel fortunate that both of these pieces have landed in my lap and that I can go out with people like Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland and Stephan James and Brian Tyree Henry, all those wonderful richly diverse black men who are willing to go to that place where you can truly see them in their deepest selves.”
Jenkins’ next project will take him in a very different direction. He’s writing and directing an 11-part Amazon series based on the acclaimed novel “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.
In the meantime, he hopes audiences enjoy “If Beale Street Could Talk” and keep reading James Baldwin who he describes as “one of the greatest American thinkers of modern times.”
“He was a very beautiful human being,” Jenkins says. “We need a lot more Baldwin these days.”