Academy Award-Winner Barry Jenkins On His New Film, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
For generations, black communities throughout the U.S. have established themselves as a place for family, worship, regional cuisines and rich history. From Atlanta, Georgia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, each city has a street or neighborhood that has captured the black experience.
Beale Street is the iconic street in Memphis, Tenn., and “Home of the Blues” where Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and other legendary greats performed and shared their music with the world. Beale Street is also a metaphor for the legacy of black people, and according to author James Baldwin, “Every black person born in America was born on a Beale Street.”
If Beale Street Could Talk is the title of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, and director and writer Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel, with the same title, has arrived for the holiday season.
The Oscar-winning Jenkins is notably known for his 2016 ground-breaking masterpiece Moonlight. Jenkins won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and after seeing If Beale Street Could Talk, I can say that the writer-director has another contender on his hands.
Set in early 1970s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is an incredible love story told by 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne). Tish is in love with her childhood friend, soulmate and fiancé Alonzo Hunt, also known as Fonny (Stephan James). Tish and Fonny have an unbreakable bond that Jenkins captures so eloquently on film. The couple dream of sharing their lives together, but their plans are ruined when Fonny is arrested and charged for a crime he didn’t commit.
Even in a post-Civil Rights era, racial tension and bigotry are alive and Tish, along with her family, including her mother Sharon Rivers played by the multi-talented Regina King, set out to clear Fonny’s name.
If Beale Street Could Talk is full of jaw-dropping moments, but the appeal of the film is the family narrative and how love and tenacity can make you resilient, even through the toughest times. Jenkins brilliantly captured the emotions of the book and brought the story to life with a memorable color schematic, narration and casting.
I recently spoke with Jenkins about the film and I asked him about the coming-of-age similarities between Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. I wanted to know if he preferred telling stories about young people rather than an older character who is in their 30s and 40s.
“No, I don’t,” Jenkins said. “And I think with this film, the characters of Regina and Colman (Domingo), especially Regina’s character, are as important to the narrative as Tish and Alonzo’s characters. I don’t have a preference at all. I don’t want to be in the business of only making coming-of-age stories because then I’m going to age out of that very quickly. I’ve already aged out of it, and I would like to tell stories that are in some ways applicable to people in my generation. But I think we all have to come-of-age at some point and I think it’s why that story form has endured for so long because it’s a universal experience, you know. And I think, too, just out of nature versus nurture, the place where the adults are going to become is decided often in adolescence.”
I also asked him if there were parts of the novel that he liked but didn’t put in the final version of the film for some reason.
“There were quite a few scenes,” Jenkins said. “There were some scenes we shot that just didn’t work in the film, ultimately. A film is like an organism. It’s got white blood cells, red blood cells and sometimes the white blood cells go, ‘This scene is not working with the makeup of the film.’ And there’s other stuff. You know, the book is so dense we couldn’t possibly fit it in, and part of that has to do with time. It’s a nonlinear story and it exists on two different planes. In the film, there’s the present day of the actual trial, and then there’s the immediate past where you’re understanding how this love came to be. I love the childhood story of Tish and Fonny in the book when they’re eight and six-years-old. I feel like for the audience, it’s going to be a bit disoriented to go that far back, and also what I love about cinema is that you don’t need to say everything. The actors are showing so you understand that these two people have been soulmates from the moment they met as children.”
If Beale Street Could Talk opens on Dec. 25.
Watch the If Beale Street Could Talk Trailer