[INTERVIEW] Director Barry Jenkins discusses culture, favorite filmmakers and evocative visual style in ‘IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’

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(Left to Right) Actor Stephan James, director Barry Jenkins, and actor KiKi Layne on the set of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

James C. Clay // Film Critic

Director Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker who is always on the move. After a small yet potent feature debut with MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, Jenkins patiently waited seven years to make his follow-up, 2016’s Best Picture-winning film MOONLIGHT. His latest film is a highly anticipated piece of work adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK.

This film takes an untraditional approach. We are able to get intimate with young African Americans Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who are rapturously in love despite the economic and criminal justice issues that plague their culture. Jenkins’ work is evocative and shows these two soul mates moving through life together despite being vilified by the system that oppresses their relationship. 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK embodies Mr. Baldwin’s work with commentary on racial politics, police brutality and the emotional toll of being young, black and in love. Jenkins is pioneering his way through a new style of filmmaking that mainstream Hollywood is just now starting to discover. It’s easy to find meaning in Jenkins’ work, meaning that transcends race, culture, and economic class.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK has Jenkins touring the country. With three Golden Globe nominations – including Best Supporting Actress (Regina King) and Screenplay (Jenkins), and Best Motion Picture – Drama – it doesn’t seem like he will be slowing down anytime soon. 

James C. Clay: When you’re writing a script, when do the visuals start to come into play? 

Barry Jenkins during his stop in Houston.

Barry Jenkins: Very early, and even before I started writing the script, to be honest. I try to think about that because not everything needs to be adapted, and Baldwin is hard to adapt. There is stanza that reads three lines: ‘Fonny’s working on the wood, it’s a very soft wood, he doesn’t want to defile the wood. This basement flat and the sunlight is flooding in the room as he is working on this piece of art he is trying to create.’We didn’t have an actor for Fonny yet, but this idea of this basement being flooded with light and circling around him. I decided at that point this novel needs to be adapted. 

We don’t see black love close up. It almost feels like a foreign thing for mainstream American cinema. How important is it for you that the audience sees that?

I don’t know if it’s most important, but I do know the films that I fell in love with are not all love stories. The films I’m drawn to show love in a way that broke the culture. I said this quite a few times, but discovering Wong Kar-wai and seeing CHUNGKING EXPRESS and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. We don’t know what they are saying unless you read the subtitles, but with his films I understand what is being communicated – the emotions are all there. So far, love stories are the way for me to communicate that. 

Stephan James as Fonny, KiKi Layne as Tish, and Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

I noticed your color palettes and your use of green in the film. Do the color plays and color frequencies dictate how the scene will play out? 

“I would say conscious, but not intentional; it was informed by our production designer Mark Friedberg, who is the only born-and-raised New Yorker department head. So he would invite me to his apartment and he would show me color references from photos and art pieces that would help to dictate the emotions and how Tish was feeling in that moment. So, if she is happy, the greens are more prevalent, but if she is going through hard times, those colors go away and the color scheme is earthbound.”

You said Fonny and Tish’s love is corrupted by the system. In your opinion, how has the system of oppression made the love between a black relationship different from a typical white relationship – especially in films that take place in a particular time period? 

“In some ways, quite directly, when you look at films that were made in this era – There is a film called CLAUDINE (1974) that shows what is actually happening in these times. There were impoverished families that were not able to qualify for welfare if there was a male in the home. So, even if a black man couldn’t get a job at a union because of discrimination, or even go to school, you could legitimately be the working poor and not be able to get welfare. And, as you see in the film CLAUDINE, the men are hiding from social workers so they can keep their welfare. So, right away the system is incentivizing having a broken home.” 

Earlier this year on Twitter you discussed how a white filmmaker, or even a European filmmaker influenced your filmmaking. And, of course, there are some people who say on Twitter when filmmakers like you, Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay, or any other filmmaker of color, it seems that non minorities are a bit taken aback by that. Do you notice that at all? 

“Well, take (filmmaker) Claire Denis, for example: that isn’t a black or white thing; she is just an esoteric filmmaker. Look at Wong Kar-wai; he is not white. Claire Denis and Lynn Ramsey are women. So, I am pulling from the minority experience. If I wasn’t making films, I would still be watching and observing all these filmmakers. 

Take this for example, I don’t like my handwriting now, but my 2nd grade teacher is the one who taught me how to write in cursive, so her DNA is all over my signature. I think you could say the same for the filmmakers I just mentioned, they are the ones who taught me how to write cursive. I do this because I love movies.” 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is now playing in select theaters.