‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Director Barry Jenkins on America’s Ugly History of ‘Preying on Young Black Men’
The director of ‘Moonlight’ opens up about his latest film, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ and the importance of depicting the totality of the Black American experience onscreen.
Barry Jenkins is in a good mood—this despite the blustery weather and endless shuffle of bodies swarming around the JW Marriott Essex House in Manhattan. It’s early December and he’s in the midst of a major media blitz. The bustle of a late-in-the-year press run-up to Oscar season is not for the faint of heart or those with short attention spans, and Jenkins has faced the media gauntlet over the past few weeks. But his enthusiasm is palpable, and when we sit down to discuss critical buzz, Baldwin and Beale Street, he sounds like a man who is fully immersed in what he has done and what he is doing.
If Beale Street Could Talk, his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, has received widespread acclaim. It centers on Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two lovebirds in 1970s Harlem. When Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, a pregnant Tish does everything in her power to clear his name. The film’s arrived two years after his Oscar-winning drama Moonlight, which announced Jenkins as one of the defining filmmakers of our time.
Jenkins’ propensity for depicting the vulnerability of Black manhood stands out, and he recognizes the power of allowing Black men to be whole—to show the love and the warmth that defines so much of our experiences.
“It is important for me,” he states. “It’s not my choice; both of these last two films are adaptations. Tarell Alvin McCraney has chosen to present black men in their full humanity, and James Baldwin has chosen to present Black men in their full humanity. Those things were gifted to me, and it is important to show that this is a feature, not a bug. I’m very keen on saying ‘that’s not the point.’ This is one of the points. It was a point in Moonlight, it’s definitely a point in Beale Street. If you’re continually ingesting all of this imagery of Black men where they’re denied their full humanity, then you start to believe, ‘Are Black men human? Do they feel things the way everyone else feel things?’ I think it’s very important, and to be brutally honest, I think when the actors walk onto the sets it’s important to them, also.”
That clarity of vision binds his two most well-known projects, as well as his indie debut Medicine for Melancholy; he offers a richly nuanced approach to intimacy, and a commitment to expressive Blackness onscreen.
“It felt like that was a function of the [Beale Street] novel, too,” he explains, “almost how by presenting the [relationship] between the joy and the suffering. But I do think the presentation of one does not necessarily mean the absence of the other, and I think in Beale Street, in particular, the joy between Tish and Fonny is almost in defiance of the despair and the suffering they experience. And I think whatever reason, in the art that we’ve been presented that’s made it into the commercial realm or the public zeitgeist, there has always been one or the other. There hasn’t been this very grounded depiction of both and there have been few grounded depictions of both where there isn’t this direct corollary between one or the other.”
“I feel like in our adaptation, we wanted to build an aesthetic contract where the joy could exist on its own and it could be grounded in a reality and not have any direct relation to the more miserable or despaired or tortuous aspects of the story, as well.”
It’s not a bad time to be Barry Jenkins. The 39-year old filmmaker has one of the year’s most praised films. That he finds himself alongside a generation of Black filmmakers who are reshaping mainstream American cinema is something in which the director takes a specific pride.
“I’m not the first person to do these things, certainly—that would be hella disrespectful to the work Spike [Lee] has done over the last two-and-a-half decades,” Jenkins acknowledges. “But the films I’ve made have somehow found themselves in the public zeitgeist, they found themselves in the commercial zeitgeist and in the critical zeitgeist. Because of that, people are actually seeing these men. I’ve been trying to understand how and why that’s happened. But I think that through the work of people like Ava [DuVernay], Jordan [Peele], Spike, and websites like Shadow and Act, Blavity—there are just so many of these places where people are gathering and go, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to accept anything less than the full depiction, the full humanity.’”
A Black creative operating within the mainstream has to be aware of the potential double-edged sword that can come from establishment adulation. Whatever cynicism expressed is often justified; there have been those who were upheld as “the voice” for Black cinema in the past, only to find their opportunities dwindling and their stature diminished once gatekeepers move on to the hot new voice. But Jenkins isn’t preoccupied with any bubble bursting or any lofty appraisals by tastemakers.
“I had it before with Medicine,” he admits. “And I did nothing with it. [Laughs] Not that I did nothing, but the more I listened to the buzz, the more I got away from myself—thus, it was eight years between [my first and second] films. So I just take it off the table. I’m just a guy telling stories.”
“And here’s the thing: back then in 2008, it was a whole different landscape. Now? It’s like ‘Black critical darling?’ Like, singular? What does that mean? There’s like eight thousand of us now! So this need for a Black critical darling, to me, doesn’t exist. So let’s take it off the table and continue to make great work.”
Jenkins is happy to stand among the aforementioned filmmakers and others who have made waves in recent years. From the popcorn blockbuster (Black Panther) to the historical drama (Selma) to the topical thriller (Get Out) and action-suspense (Widows), there has been a widening that feels long overdue. There is no unicorn of Black cinema currently, and Jenkins believes that’s been the goal all along: a broader palette of creative voices being seen and heard on the most visible platforms.
“I’m extremely encouraged,” he says. “I think about it from the top to the bottom. At the top, you have a movie with a ninety-percent Black cast that grossed 8.5 bajillion dollars! And then way down low, you have this young woman named Nijla Mu’min, who used to be a critic. I knew her as an up-and-coming filmmaker who had a film breakout at SXSW. A small film called Jinn. Whenever it’s not just at the top, but you can go through the entire strata and see people doing interesting work in their own voices, hell yeah, that’s encouraging. And it’s not just me, someone who is within the system, who can see all of these things; I think audience can see it as well, which, to be honest, is even more important.”
The moviegoing audience of 2018 is more connected and vocal than 25 years ago, and just as those factors have led to some of the changes we’ve seen, there is also a recognition that people being more aware means that these changes can and should run much deeper.
“There were moments where there were clusters around Spike, but you go back over the past 30 years, he’s the one constant,” Jenkins says. “I think for Spike it must be gratifying and I think he should be proud that all the weight he carried for those decades—it wasn’t for naught. Now I’m sure he looks around like, ‘Oh shit—twenty years from now all of these muthafuckas are gonna still be working, still telling their stories!’ Maybe twenty years ago, he couldn’t look around and say the same thing.”
Like so much of his work, Baldwin’s story of young lovers offers an indictment of American culture—how far any semblance of actual “justice” seems when one is fixed within a racist American system. To call Beale Street “timely” would ignore how its themes have played continuously for Black folks in America.
“I think the real question is, if the book were set in 1954, then what would it be?” Jenkins offers. “It’s horrific in its ‘present’ setting of the early ‘70s. Can you imagine? What are we talking about? Then we’re talking about Emmett Till. When are we going to do something about this? And what I mean is, when are we going to really take the legalization of preying on young Black men—as far as sentencing codes, due process, public defenders—when are we going to really take a look at how these things operate?”
“Maybe things are beginning to change. I just saw that the officer who murdered Botham Jean will actually be tried for murder. So maybe there is progress, because five years ago I don’t know if that would be the case. Five years ago, we’re talking about Trayvon Martin. We’re talking about Tamir Rice.”
Those tragedies and a litany of others were catalysts that sparked a call to action for a generation coming into itself. Alongside the social unrest and presidential shift from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, there has been a wave of topical Black art and entertainment—much of it by voices that have risen to the fore telling stories of what’s happening and what has happened in the Black American experience.
Jenkins believes that his work has found its way into peoples’ consciousness—and that is the ultimate goal of any storyteller. They want you to see the world they’ve created through their characters’ eyes, and so often Black experience has been depicted through an outside lens, or heavily influenced by outside perspectives. Jenkins has found a wide audience by drawing you into a world that exists within itself and showing that world’s wide array of textures. It’s why he’s become such a favorite—but it’s also why he thinks this is bigger than accolades. That his work resonates in a way that connects our experiences is what matters.
“I’m always surprised—not necessarily when people respond positively, because that’s something I can’t control, but when the audience is experiencing the film through the perspective that you hoped they would, which is through our main characters, when they’re actually empathizing and identifying with what they’re going through,” Jenkins concedes when asked about all the love his films have received. “That, to me, is always a pleasant surprise. So for me, it’s been very heartening, because at the very least what I see in it is this was all about harnessing the power and energy of James Baldwin and giving it to the audience. And I think from top to bottom, that was our chief hope.”
That hope has been realized via the compelling art Jenkins creates. His greatest successes have been cinematic interpretations of existing works: Baldwin’s Beale Street and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and both works served to illuminate the humanity of Black love, pain and identity. In Jenkins’ Beale Street, he highlights the family’s reaction to 19-year-old Tish announcing that she’s expecting a baby with her incarcerated boyfriend Fonny in a way that is illustrative of how Berry Jenkins sees that humanity.
“I thought it was important to introduce the circumstances of Tish and Fonny’s human situation before introducing the ‘weight of the world,’ in a certain way,” he explains. “There’s different kinds of weight. Even if he’s not awaiting trial, the announcement of this baby would still be a seismic act. What you’re watching in the first 30 minutes is what should be the family drama, but the system of this entrapment and this damn officer, now this places an extra burden. Life is difficult in and of itself, and imagine being a young Black man who an extremely empowered cop has decided, ‘You know what? You.’ So to me it’s like, let’s just set up in the first 30 minutes the dynamics of this love and this family and this life and that would be enough drama to sustain a whole narrative. And then imagine now you gotta deal with this shit. That’s what it’s like to be Black in America.”