barry jenkins: “there was a time when people assumed black people didn’t dream”

The ‘Moonlight’ director discusses dreams, memories and his latest film, an adaption of James Baldwin’s tale of love and injustice, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

by Joseph Walsh
|
06 February 2019, 7:00am

If Barry Jenkins was nervous, he didn’t show it. When I sat down with him in a hotel in London, it was the morning of the Oscars announcements. Jenkins’s latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, was tipped as a contender.

Whether he showed it or not, it had to be on his mind. After all, Jenkins went through the ringer back in in 2017 when there was a screw up at the Academy Awards. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, before there was a rush of people on stage and Moonlight was correctly announced as that year’s Best Picture winner. Jenkins’s much-deserved moment of recognition was overshadowed by the debacle.

Instead, we start by talking about James Baldwin’s novel, and what it feels like to be at the helm of one of very few black literary adaptations made in Hollywood. Set in 1970s Harlem, it’s the story of pregnant 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Lane) who, along with her family, sets out to prove the innocence of her boyfriend Fonni (Stephen James) who has been falsely accused of rape.

It may be a period film, but the plot has strong resonances with today’s America and the treatment of POC by the justice system. In July of 1960, Baldwin wrote in an article, “Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.” Watching Jenkins’s film allows us to go back and walk those streets with Tish, and realise the depressing truth that little has changed in almost 60 years.

Jenkins wrote the screenplay for Beale Street at the same time as Moonlight, while travelling through Europe by train. It feels fitting, given that Baldwin left the USA in 1948 to settle in France where he wrote most of his best-known works, including Beale Street. What better place than Europe to write the screenplay for the first English cinema language adaptation of Baldwin’s work?

Jenkins’s love of literature, including his love of Baldwin’s work, began when he was a boy growing up in in Liberty City, Miami, with a mother (upon whom he based Chiron’s mother in Moonlight) who was suffering from a drug addiction. After leaving behind his passion for football at High School – he readily admits he probably couldn’t have gone pro – Jenkins went to study literature at Florida State.

“I am always chasing the experience of reading literature,” he says. “I fell in love with the interior voice.” His face lights up discussing the subject. “Literature is as flat as a work can get -- it’s just words on a page. Yet somehow through the organisation of words and phrases you can focus someone’s senses completely.”

As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins took what he had learned from studying literature at university and applied it to filmmaking. This meant taking images and sounds and knitting them together in a way that could reflect the life of a 19-year-old black woman in 1970s Harlem.

“What was important to me was that the film was told from Tish’s point of view,” he says. “If she still loved the same person, I asked how would she remember her first kiss? Or the first time she made love.” This is why the entire film has a hypnotic, saturated aesthetic like a memory or a dream, visually bathed in green hues and sun-bleached golds.

barry jenkins if beale street could talk

Jenkins is well-known for being one of the most sensual director’s working in Hollywood. While Beale Street is beautiful and tender, there’s an underlying anger to Jenkins’s film that comes from Baldwin’s book. “[He] wrote it with a high degree of bitterness and anger,” he says. “Anger runs beneath the surface, because what these characters and the audience are exposed to should make you angry.”

But anger isn’t the place Jenkins wanted to start from. Instead he took a different approach to balancing Tish’s happy memories and the injustice of Fonni’s arrest and what it was like to be black in 70s New York. “What I really began to understand was that I had to think of it like chemistry -- some problems are denser than others, so you might need a little bit less or a little bit more of something to arrive at parity.”

Jenkins’s decision to tell Baldwin’s novel through Tish’s dreams and memories was also a political choice. “There was a time when people assumed black people didn’t dream, and I mean this literally.” Jenkins adds, “When you look at cinema that features people of colour you very rarely see them having dreams, or having their dreams visualised.” He adds, “For me it was a provocative act having the movie framed with the dreams and memories of a young black woman.” For Jenkins, the film is a reflection of Tish -- her dreams, her memories, her love for Fonni.

I try to edge towards the subject of the Oscars, but my time is up. Later he posts a picture on Twitter of three notes passed under his door by his personal agent -- it’s up for three awards, Regina King for Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score, and importantly for Jenkins, Best Adapted Screenplay.