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Film If James Baldwin could talk: Why Barry Jenkins is the perfect artist to adapt Beale Street

From left to right: actor Stephan James, director Barry Jenkins and actor KiKi Layne on the set of If Beale Street Could Talk.

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures/Courtesy of Entertainment One

There’s an irrevocable weight to the writing of novelist and social critic James Baldwin. To adapt his work without the necessary intelligence, dedication and care of Baldwin himself is to degrade the material at hand. But then, so is any attempt to augment or affix to his work anything outside of itself. With Baldwin, things can neither be added nor taken away – indeed, his legacy is imbued with this direct and richly embodied way in which he wrote, communicated, loved and fought. The impact of his work lies in this unwavering precision: a rigour that is studied, but above all personal and poetic.

When I talk about this work of adapting Baldwin to director Barry Jenkins the night after the world premiere of his newest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall, he nods appreciatively. The Oscar-winner is no stranger to this kind of undertaking. With his monumental 2016 film Moonlight, Jenkins and co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney adapted McCraney’s piece, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with such great consideration for both the work’s material and lived sources. I’ve said it before and I’ll gladly say it again – there is perhaps no contemporary filmmaker better suited to adapting the work of Baldwin than Jenkins. As with Baldwin, Jenkins is a master of textured interiority – his characters come to life in as much as he allows them space to unfold and settle into lines of moment.

This is likely too heavy a burden of expectation to place on the director in person, so I opt instead to talk with Jenkins about Baldwin’s influence on not only himself but black artists and creators in general. Jenkins wrote the screenplay for If Beale Street Could Talk after being given the book in the late 2000s by a friend. “I knew that [adapting the book] would be a challenge. When you take anything from one form into another, that new form really needs to dictate what the work is,” he says. “I wanted to do a faithful adaptation and I wanted to have extreme fidelity to [Baldwin’s] words.”

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Baldwin’s story of black love, of black womanhood, of systemic violence against black men, and of the black families who continue to hold themselves together within the wake of such violence, never mind the violence they face themselves, is no easy task for a two-hour film. Yet Baldwin’s lyrical prose – his ability to sustain presence as if it were story in and of itself – finds its perfect match in Jenkins’s film. The director holds blackness close, detailing its curvatures and tonalities with an empathetic eye; taking in all of its textures with the kind of care that can only be described as loving.

“There’s this [complicated] idea of such a heavy social issue being painted in such beautiful tones," Jenkins tells me. "But I think that Harlem is such a beautiful place and these people are beautiful people and to have tried and stripped that beauty away would’ve seemed false to me.”

Jenkins wanted to mirror Baldwin's 'very visual' language in his adaptation.

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture/Courtesy of Entertainment One

“Baldwin wrote these scenes and the actors gave life to it,” he continues. “I just love watching this film with certain audiences because, without even saying anything, there’s these small things – people pick up on these cues because it relates to their experience.”

On the subject of working with blackness as a visual language, and Jenkins’s handling of this as it relates to adapting Baldwin, the director says, "Beale Street is a very different film from Moonlight. It’s the same tools, the same artisans – it’s myself and [cinematographer] James [Laxton], alongside Nicholas Britell who did the score – but we did feel like the story demanded a different aesthetic.”

His admiration for auteurist craftsmanship is also made clear. “Baldwin wrote in a very visual way. In Moonlight, there were very clear references – Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together was an influence, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail was an influence – but for Beale Street, it was Baldwin. I think that the way that he built these sequences and the way that he built the interior lives of these characters was inherently cinematic.”

Across his filmography, Jenkins balances the beauty of black life alongside the lived reality of being black in the United States. And any exploration of black lives necessarily entails a cogent expression of trauma, and an understanding of shaping that experience in a way that doesn’t wholly define us, but shapes us and informs our stories in differing ways.

“I hope that it’s elegant. And eloquent. I think, for me, it comes down to the actors," the director says. "With this film and the previous film, it was really about portraiture. We looked at the work of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, who shot so much beautiful imagery in Harlem. We tried to find faces that could convey the duality of the African-American experiences, especially the duality of the lives these characters lived in 1974, which is not very different from the lives we live today in 2018.”

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He continues, “But it’s [also] something that I try not to be [overly] conscious of because, if you’re striving for beauty or a certain kind of duality, then that becomes a performance and it’s not lived in. But I think it is something important because it reflects the lives we actually live.”

Jenkins says they tried to build a space where the female actors could fully express their character's emotions because 'that's the wavelength of black life.'

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture/Courtesy of Entertainment One

As we talk more about this translation of black feeling and being to film, I touch on the deep space of both strength and vulnerability that his black actresses occupy. “That complexity is there on the page, especially amongst the women,” he continues. “There’s a story I read that, when Baldwin finished this book, he read it out loud to Toni Morrison, and he was so scared of her reaction because he thought, ‘Have I done these women’s experience justice?’ And knowing that, we tried to cast a group of women and build a space wherein they could be passionately in love, where they could be passionately angry, where they could be passionately vulnerable. Because, for me at least, that’s the wavelength of black life.”

In this vein, newcomer KiKi Layne brings such sincerity to her role as Tish that it seems almost impossible to fault her for the in-situ development of experience she brings to it – especially given that this role is one for which she is so wonderfully suited. Likewise, Scarborough-bred actor Stephan James is nothing less than steady in his portrayal of Fonny, a young man deeply in love with Tish who comes to be falsely accused of sexual assault by a vindictive white police officer. But it is Tish’s parents Sharon and Joseph, played by Colman Domingo and the indomitable Regina King, who provide the sturdy backbone to Jenkins’s film.

“This film was about building families. I was looking for the mother and the father that I could’ve had,” he tells me, “I feel blessed that the actors who chose to work with me could do it all. Colman and Regina [are both] very wise people with a lot of gravitas, but there’s a vibrancy and youthfulness to them as well. And it was important to me to have these parents who were capable of reflecting [in some sense] the younger couple, Tish and Fonny.” He continues, “I wrote this at the same time that I wrote Moonlight, which was a depiction of a certain kind of black family, while Beale Street is a completely different kind of black family. There was just something about the pairing of those two that was extremely potent. There was something about the two of them that just spoke to each other.”

Looking at Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk in this light – as a loose cinematic diptych of black families, of black love – is illuminating. The critical scrutiny Jenkins faces coming off of Moonlight, easily one of the greatest contemporary and accessible works of art concerned with black life put to film, is not an enviable position. And with Beale Street, the director reminds us of black art’s necessary span – in paying tribute to our lives and subjectivities and that of those who came before us, there is no way in which we will ever be definitive.

We are too vast to be reduced. And Jenkins’s work quite surely resides in that vastness.

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If Beale Street Could Talk opens Dec. 25

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