Brow Beat

Barry Jenkins on Adapting James Baldwin, His Rematch With Damien Chazelle, and Why Twitter Saves Lives

Barry Jenkins
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD

With just three full-length films, director Barry Jenkins has become the foremost chronicler of black tenderness in American cinema. Moonlight, Jenkins’ Best Picture–winning coming-of-age movie, immediately heralded the arrival of a distinct new voice. But it was the writer-director’s 2008 feature debut, Medicine for Melancholy, a romance starring Wyatt Cenac set against San Francisco’s gentrification crisis, that persuaded James Baldwin’s estate to give Jenkins the rights to adapt the author’s work in English for the very first time.

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The result is If Beale Street Could Talk, a romantic drama that Jenkins wrote concurrently with Moonlight. Starring Stephan James (Race) and luminous newcomer KiKi Layne as doomed young lovers undone by police malfeasance and a false accusation of rape, the ’70s-set Beale Street shares with Jenkins’ earlier films the same warmth, ardor, acuity, and rapturous response from critics. But one also gets the sense that Jenkins just wanted to do justice to one of his heroes.

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Jenkins spoke to Slate in mid-October during a trip to San Francisco, where he lived for nearly a decade. Though slightly under the weather, he was thoughtful and excitable as he discussed how Baldwin opened up the world to him as a young reader, how social media could prevent the next Emmett Till, what surprised him about audience reactions to Beale Street, and how he feels about squaring off against La La Land and First Man director Damien Chazelle in another award season. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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At what age did you discover James Baldwin?

I was midway through undergrad. An ex-girlfriend recommended I read Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. Giovanni’s Room is the story of two men. One is an American traveling through Europe, and he’s engaged to a woman, but he’s not sure if he wants to marry her. So while in Paris by himself, he falls in love with this Italian bartender named Giovanni. It’s a very sad, fated, torrid romance. And The Fire Next Time is two long-form essays that were published in the New Yorker—Baldwin addressing “the Negro problem” in America. So those were my introductions.

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What does Baldwin mean to you?

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Everything. I had never read the work of any queer author—not knowingly. And then to find that here was this young, black voice that grew up poor, like me, and somehow created this language to express everything—to talk not only about himself, but about people outside himself, in such an eloquent way. It opened my worldview a bit because I had a very limited opinion of what I was capable of, and reading Baldwin showed me that maybe there is more. I could expand the box of possibility for myself.

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Do you mean you weren’t sure how much you could make an impact on the world creatively?

Creatively and intellectually. When you grow up in a certain way, whether you grow up impoverished or just isolated, you think that you can only speak to a very finite existence. I feel like reading someone like Baldwin, I was like “No.” What I love about Baldwin is he didn’t have to run away from his culture to speak on the culture at large. Even more than that, he used his unique perspective to bring a unique perspective to the culture at large.

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Given that so many of the racial issues that Beale Street is about—mass incarceration, poverty, housing, education—are still with us today, did you ever consider making Beale Street a contemporary film?

Very briefly: in the very beginning, before I even sat down to write the first draft. I was thinking with my production brain: I just thought the budget would go further if we didn’t have to make everything period-specific. This was before Moonlight existed, when I didn’t think I’d get to make anything. I thought, “I am a filmmaker nobody’s gonna support anymore.” But it then became very clear to me that the power of the adaptation would be in setting the movie in the period within which it was published because, as you said, so many of the things that happen in the book and in the film are still happening today.

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Stephan James, who plays Fonny, tells a story about using the story of Kalief Browder as inspiration for his performance. Last night at Mill Valley [the film festival in Marin County], I was mentioning this story of Kalief Browder, and it was clear to me that a large segment of the audience had no idea who Kalief Browder was. I said, “Kalief Browder is basically Fonny. These things are still happening.” The Kalief Browder situation is even more extreme than Fonny’s, unfortunately.

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Yesterday I read a viral story about a white woman who accused a 9-year-old boy—

And then they finally found the surveillance video. And it’s not that we should have needed to have found the surveillance video. What I loved about that story—not what I loved, because there’s nothing to love about anything associated with that—all these mothers from all different races started to explain, “Look, if I’m in the grocery store shopping, my kids, they’re small people, they just grab the first leg they see.” Basically saying, even if this kid did touch this woman, this is what kids do. And the kid is a kid!

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Then the video came out, and it was very clear that this kid’s backpack brushed this woman. What I hate is the question that I ask myself when I see that video: If that kid was a white child who brushed up against that woman, would she have said anything at all?

Do you find yourself paying attention to a lot of these stories of viral racism?

It’s not that I find myself paying attention—I feel like it’s impossible to not see them. They’re just so prevalent. And here’s the power in them being so pervasive in the culture right now: These things have been happening for so long. And we never had the technology to verify that they were happening. So what do you think happened to people in these instances where there wasn’t technology to verify if these things did or did not happen?

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I mean, sadly, we know.

We know exactly. This is really aggressive, it’s a very harsh thing to say, but if you took this story of this woman in the grocery store and you took it back 60 years, you might be talking about Emmett Till. Legitimately.

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Literally.

Literally the same fucking thing. That’s why, when people say, “Oh, I’ve gotta get off Twitter because it’s just making me sad,” I’m like, “Yeah, but in some cases Twitter is literally saving people’s lives.”

That’s the most optimistic thing anyone’s ever said about Twitter. One notable departure you make from the novel is the film’s beginning. Beale Street essentially starts with the joy of the mother of a black teenage girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock. The mom calls their celebratory night a “sacrament” and organizes a near-religious commemoration of the event. Did you want to foreground that scene, which takes place later in the novel, to reverse what we usually think of when we think of that type of situation?

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We did an early test screening, and this middle-aged black woman stood up and was really emotional. She was like, “In that scene where the daughter tells the father for the first time, I expected that to go a completely different way. I’m so upset with myself, because I don’t know why I would be so shocked that they respond in such a nurturing way.” That’s not something directly from the book, but it was important to me to set out the circumstances of this family dynamic, because you need to see what there is to be lost before the procedural elements take over and you realize essentially that this family is fucked.

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I didn’t realize how much that would go against expectations. But as I’ve watched the film more and more with audiences, it’s something that’s bittersweet. Because Colman [Domingo, who plays the girl’s father] is full of love. You should take one look at him and realize, of course he’s going to respond in a favorable way. But I think because we don’t see those things happen in media, in arts and letters, as often as they happen in real life, we then assume the reaction we’ve seen before: this guy getting pissed because his daughter being impregnated by this guy who’s her soul mate is somehow emasculating to him. That makes no sense.

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Baldwin’s language in the novel is sometimes really acidic. At one point the phrase “dried-up cunts” is flung as an insult. How did you decide how much of that to put in and how much to leave out?

There was a line I had in my head. I felt like there was a line at which the language was a bit too acidic.

For you or for the movie?

I tried to use my internal clock as a barometer first and then let that reverberate out to, is the audience going to be so caught up in this piece of language that they can’t move on to the next beat, to the next scene?

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I feel we curved the language just a little bit, but we left quite a bit of it in as well. In the big scene between the two families, there are a few lines in there that are a bit aggressive. But for me, the biggest ones are the two conversations between black men: the conversation that Fonny and Daniel have, and the conversation the two fathers have at the bar when they’re speaking directly and openly to the social condition of black folks in America and the role that white folks in America have played in pushing or creating those social conditions.

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I think people recognize very quickly that these are conversations that people have amongst themselves, and the beauty of literature and cinema is you can witness those conversations for the first time and hopefully walk out of the theater and participate in them by asking, “Wow, what did that mean? Why did Barry Jenkins put that in that film?” Send me a DM, and I’ll tell you.

Were you relieved that, after the gigantic triumph of Moonlight winning Best Picture, you already had something lined up so that you wouldn’t have that pressure of deciding what was next?

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I was. It was almost a crutch to know exactly what the next film would be, to know exactly where and when we were gonna do it. But then it might have been nice to take a break, because rather than dealing with all the stuff that happened, I just went back to work.

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Is it weird having to go against Damien Chazelle again this award season?

No! If Damien had made a film called If Beale Street Could Talk about a young black couple and a mom who has to go to clear the son’s name, or I had made a movie about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, then I feel like we would be going against each other. But they’re two very distinct and separate pieces of art, just like La La Land and Moonlight were.

It’s funny. The first thing that happened at Toronto [the film festival] was: I walk into the IMDb studio and right away I recognize his publicist. I look on the screen, and he’s sitting for the interview that I’m about to sit for. As he comes off the stage, I see all the phones come out, and we just look at each other and we know, “Oh, this is the first time we’ve seen each other.” So we gave each other a hug and everyone started taking photos.

That was your first time seeing him since the 2017 Oscars?

Yes and no. I saw him the morning after the Oscars, when we did a photo shoot. We email back-and-forth a bit, just to check in. Anytime somebody wants to write something about the Oscars, they always reach out to the both of us, and we somehow collectively always go, “No, we’re good.” But it was the first time I had seen him in person. Eventually, people will grow tired of it. But for now, yeah, we shared this thing that was insane.

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