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Barry Jenkins on the Burden of Honouring James Baldwin with ‘Beale Street’

We spoke to Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell about turning the classic novel into a classic film.
Barry Jenkins from If Beale Street Could Talk, talking about James Baldwin and honouring his legacy
Images courtesy of A24. 

Imagine the guts: it’s December 2013, and a tired and broke Barry Jenkins is spending his weeks alone writing a screenplay in Berlin, Germany. He’s a practical nobody at this point aside from directing a small indie feature yet he elects to adapt a book from one of america's all time great novelists, James fucking Baldwin.

Some way, somehow, he manages the rights, and it’s green pastures from here. Right?


“I was scared man,” Barry Jenkins admits with a tone that sounds like duh. “It’s James fucking Baldwin.”

Interestingly enough, it was that one 2008 feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a romance set among San Francisco's rapid gentrification, that convinced the estate of James Baldwin to give newcomer Jenkins the rights to adapt the beloved story, If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin’s 1975 prison parable about a black romance set in 1970s Harlem.

While most know Jenkins for having spent the last few years securing a legacy from his Oscar win in Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk stood in the background as the ever-challenging follow up that would demand similar creative principles borrowed from his portrait of black male sexuality.

In doing so, he brought over composer Nicholas Britell, who supplied the hearable texture to Moonlight’s sound, along with his own changeless cinematic talent for stripping scenes to their most bare sentiments. I already expressed my love for the film, but most recently, I also had the opportunity to speak with both Jenkins and Britell who touched once, and managed it in another. I spoke about the pressure and reward of adapting a James Baldwin story, and how Jenkins continues to be able to bring experiences to life that aren’t his own.

VICE: Talking to the both of you, you’ve got two wonderful movies down, some brand new Oscar buzz, and here you are again with If Beale Street Could Talk . What’s your relationship been like through all this craziness?
Barry Jenkins: Man, I feel like we never lost touch since then. Part of it was due to Nicholas who just likes to get right to it very early. So once we made Moonlight, and Oscar situation happened, where we were both nominated, we sort of saw each other basically all the damn time (laughs), and just knowing that we were heading right into this film, that just moved quickly and naturally. It helped a ton that If Beale Street Could Talk was shot in New York, exactly where Nick lives. It’s’ so funny, I often think about this, but Nick, we really didn’t know each other at all before Moonlight.


Nicholas Britell: We really didn’t (laughs)

Jenkins: I hadn’t even heard of Nick’s music to be honest before hiring him for Moonlight. But we just met, and the vibe was so strong, and we became friends before we even became collaborators. At the very least, those two things happened at the same time.

Britell: That’s so totally true. I remember our first meeting so vividly too. I was scoring The Big Short that summer, and I had dinner with one of our producers, Jeremy Kleiner, and I remember him telling me about this apparently unbelievable script that he’s working on that he was about to produce called Moonlight. He’s actually crying as he’s telling me this because it was so beautiful. So then I read it, and I was blown away. It was absolutely the most beautiful script that I had ever read. It was like poetry. It really read like a poem and was absolutely sublime. Of course, I immediately asked if there was any way that I could possibly meet this Barry guy. So I remember him connecting us and we met up thinking we were just going to do the coffee thing, but we ended up having this three hour long deep conversation about life, music and films. The connection was there from the start and the ideas just started to roll.


From center right to left, Barry Jenkins and Nicholas Britell.

Now I know how much you wanted this James Baldwin adaptation. So here you are approved by his estate, and it's gotta be perfect across the board. When do you decide get together with Nicholas on the music front?
Jenkins: For all of us, the experience of making Moonlight was actually organic, fluent, and collaborative. We were learning as we went on. It was like family, and at that point, it becomes clear that we’re going to work again on If Beale Street Could Talk. Just from a music end, I thought Beale Street was going to demand this jazz-based score, and I actually thought it would exclusively take that on. But having a guy like Nick who’s an explorer…hell, chop and screwing wasn’t in Nick’s go-to either, but he explored the shit out of that. I figured we’d be doing the same things on Beale Street. Explore.


Britell: Going in, we both have certain instincts, and I remember the first conversation I had with Barry. He had this idea of hearing brass and horns, and so we explored, but as we started putting together the initial pieces, building that picture, we realized that it was missing something. It didn’t have strings which came to symbolize and really feel like the emotion of love. As Barry and anyone would tell you, a lot of this movie is about love and injustice, and it deals in so many different loves that exist. The romantic and erotic sort. The kind of love that parents have for their children, and the love that comes from friendships. But even apart from that, it deals in the divine and pure kind of love that’s unmistakable. A lot of the tracks are actually named from ancient Greek words for love. Through our discoveries, there’s a reason why the love in this film is felt in relationship to the injustice. We took those sounds and distorted those same notes and blended them in the same way this story is a play between the beautiful and the terrifying.

As an example, in the sequence when Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) is telling Fonny (Stephan James) about his experience in prison, audiences will hear this rumbling that comes up through the floorboards. Right then, you’re hearing Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” that’s getting run through this long tailed sound at the same time. That rumbling is actually the sound of cellos when you first see Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny making love for the first time. Neither of us would have known that it was what we would wind up with. We were both discovering this stuff together and it was really exhilarating.


But in the case of you Barry, I’d be scared shitless. You were looking to adapt this James Baldwin story that no one had ever been allowed adapt. Way before the Oscar and Moonlight. What made you think you could do this justice at all?
Jenkins: Oh I definitely wasn’t scared about anything around Moonlight, but with If Beale Street Could Talk, I was scared man. It’s James Fucking Baldwin (laughs)


James Baldwin, image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Jenkins: I wrote about Baldwin’s work as much, but he’s obviously been an author who I’ve admired for a very long time. He’s a man who really uses the literary form in the most audacious way. He represents one of the situations where, not everything should or needs to be adapted. Certainly not much of his work. I’ll be brutally honest, I actually wondered…am I good enough to take on this geniuses work and do it justice in this other form? To me, that was a real challenge and the source of most of the pressure. At a certain point, I just had to come to the understanding that James Baldwin isn’t here making this film, I am. At that point, I had to move and operate under the same guiding principles that I’ve always moved under with my previous work. Once I got to that point man, it was about the characters, scenarios, situations, but always about retaining that same energy of James Baldwin. I’ll go ahead and say, I’m really proud of this film. I’m proud of the performances, score, cinematography, just all of it. In a certain way, I have to believe that we did do James Baldwin justice. I hope that because they’re in separate mediums, they don’t have to be directly compared. But I do think that the movie we set out to make did Baldwin’s legacy justice.


I don’t think you have to worry about having done it justice. And Nicholas, this is your second stint with Barry. Much of what I remember from Moonlight comes from the music involved. When you read Barry’s script and of course Baldwin’s book, what was that gut reaction, particularly musically?
Britell: That’s a great question. Thinking through the sounds is one thing I’m personally open to imagining. What’s the musical landscape going to be? James Baldwin’s story is its own work, and the film is going to be its own work. I try to be respectful of the mystery of that process of the things you begin to write, and the things you begin to imagine. It happens often when you begin creating something after reading a script or novel, but when put against the moving picture, it doesn’t work. Thankfully, Barry over here is a great guide, and working with him will teach you about where you’re going to go next. When we’re experimenting, there’s no wrong answers in that. It’s something we both find so creatively nourishing, because there’s a trust for the process there. I know that he feels things out, and I know he wants to be able to feel something. Once we find that, it’s when I feel like I can rest. But until then, we don’t stop until we find that place.

I also have to say, that in film form, it’s a haunting story from start to end, especially in the way the music and filmography understood Baldwin’s play between the beautiful and the horrifying, like in that opening prison scene. How did you guys tap into that in a way that was felt?
Jenkins: You know, that’s always been the beauty of adapting a novel. It takes much longer to read James Baldwin’s work. We’re talking about 20 hours versus the two hours to watch this film. That’s a lot of material that I get to access, that the cinematographers, and Nick and I also get to access. But most importantly, it’s something that our actors can draw from. It was really about bringing in that subtext, that Hemingway iceberg theory up front. All that stuff lying beneath the surface. I think with all of those elements combined, when the actors are locked on set, they’re bringing all that with them, and when Nick and I are working, the scene might be centered around a particular moment as far as the music and lines are concerned, but hopefully the energy and spirit of all the other moments that surrounded it before and after are still present. Everything that came previously, hopefully in a way, will clue audiences into the sort of themes that are going to come after. In that way, the process of creating wasn’t easy, that’s for damn sure. (laughs)


Britell: Definitely not (laughs).

Jenkins: Everything about If Beale Street Could Talk felt challenging, but I do think that the power of adapting James Baldwin came in the fact that I had the power of James Baldwin at my disposal. In a way, some of the gravitas and just the buoyancy of what the characters were feeling was written down. It was always for me, at least on an intellectual level, because the source material was very clear. I never felt like I had to manufacture emotions and horrors. I never had to manufacturer those feelings of terror or dispair. It was so clear in grand scheme of things, and I gotta be honest. It comes down to the way that Mr. Baldwin describes it all, in the interior voice of his novel. That’s the stuff that everyone on set can access and pull from, whether it be Nick, myself or the other actors.

So curiously, just as a creative, what’s it been like to work with James Baldwin’s work that reads so multi-dimensional?
Jenkins: Man, for me it’s just awesome. As a director, I’m always trying to find a way to create images. There was a time an entire story could be told from a single painting or image. When I’m approaching it from a cinematic standpoint, it’s like well, if Vincent van Gogh can do it in a single painting, if Kerry James Marshall can convey feelings in a single image, than I’ve got 24 images a second at my disposal and all this rich tapestry of emotion that Baldwin has created through words, so let’s get at it. It really feels like a blessing. I mean, there’s a burden in adapting such a masterful piece of work, sure, because it’s like oh shit, I’ve gotta live up to this. But there’s no way that this can’t not feel like a blessing.


And Barry, I had moments when I felt a strong emotion stylistically that you brought over from Moonlight. It’s that way of stripping scenes bare. Little action, mostly faces, which allows for audiences to catch the vulnerability in James Baldwin’s story.
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s another one of those situations where I love how gradual the process can be, where it’s just myself and others observing, than something grabs us and we’re like, oh shit, let’s chase that. The scene [Brian telling Stephan about a prison experience] is a great scene, and it’s a place where we have to trust each other across the board because it’s such an important moment. It began with two cameras since we had one day to do this. Stephan James’s energy was in one camera, and Brian Tyree Henry’s in another, and at this point it’s hard tell if they’re sharing the same energies. So we took one camera, and decided to pass the image back and forth between the two of them as opposed to artificial breaks in the editing room.


Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James.

It takes a lot for any actor to go, I think I understand now that everything I’ve been doing for the first half of an entire day is going in the trash, but let’s get it (laughs). But when you see that scene, it’s everyone working in concert. That’s one of those places musically when we also had Miles Davis’ Blue In Green playing, and for the longest time, that’s all I had playing. I mean, it’s fucking Miles Davis (laughs). But it came down to, how do we take two single moments, and have it contain the emotion and weight of all the moments throughout the film. In that way, we can integrate score here, and make it a much more connected scene in a real subtle and organic way. Every scene that comes before feeds into the scenes that came after. As mentioned before, a certain Tish and Fonny love scene contains the same song in a melody that’s taken from that supremely dark rumble you hear beginning to rise up at the end. It’s another image being passed back and forth.

Barry, I personally wrote about how this story was one of the best illustrates of black love and black women, particularly in the way they were elevated. Obviously, you’re not a woman. And in the case of Moonlight , you’re straight. How have you managed to authentically tell the stories of experiences you haven’t lived?
Jenkins: Over the years, it’s been about listening for me man. I think on both Moonlight and Beale Street, it’s what I had to do. On Moonlight, it was about listening to Tarell McCraney, and listening even more. I gotta be honest, it was also in purposely hiring people on the crew who could relate to the experience of the characters in question. On Beale Street, because I’m obviously not a woman, and James Baldwin isn’t a woman, it was about listening to our actresses who embody the characters. It was in allowing them every now and again to check me, and be like, actually, I think this should be this way, and it’ll be a situation where I’ll have to admit that I’d never felt that one thing. So shit, you got it. If feels that way, there it is. Through listening, I arrive at something, especially when actors can take active agency over a character. It only reveals itself in the most authentic depiction of a personality.


Regina King as Sharon Rivers | Image via Youtube.

Case in point, in the book when the great Regina King’s character, Sharon Rivers, is in Puerto Rico on behalf of her son…in the book, she’s trying to put on and remove a black shawl, but with Regina, she was telling me that a woman of her generation and the generation who raised her would be doing this with a wig. And I was like, you know what, I never wore a shawl nor a wig, so let’s do it, it’s a wig. In listening, I arrived at that something where I get on set and ask an actress, hey you know what? I think I want you to do this same scene you altered, but now you’re looking directly at the camera. Now she’s a part of the choice with what she’s doing. Through listening, I can arrive at something that has more agency from the actors and actresses I work with, and from that, they feel more real to an audience in ways I could never produce from my own understanding.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

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