In Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s provocative and tragic novel If Beale Street Could Talk, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight shows that when it comes to systemic injustice, we haven’t come far from 1974.
EW sat down with the Jenkins to get some words on the Street.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to adapt Baldwin’s novel into a movie?
BARRY JENKINS: One of my friends said, “Have you read this book by James Baldwin? I think there’s a movie in it, and I think you’d be the perfect person to direct it.” I’d always been a big fan of James Baldwin, but I hadn’t read this book. It surprised me that when I read it, right away I was grabbed by this idea of telling this love story about two young black kids who are soul mates.
You wrote the Beale Street screenplay at the same time you were writing 2016’s Moonlight. Did the success of the latter impact the making of this movie at all?
The success didn’t alter my approach to making Beale Street. To be brutally honest, I think it functioned the other way: The success of Moonlight confirmed the things I wanted to do with If Beale Street Could Talk. There was all this noise going on in the aftermath of winning the Oscar in such a loud way, but it was really nice to know that the root of Moonlight and the root of this film preceded all those things, and to have this core foundation to work from that was still just myself and my friends wanting to tell stories.
KiKi Layne and Stephan James have such credible chemistry as the couple, Tish and Fonny, who are separated by racism and false accusations of rape. Was that connection something you saw immediately when casting them?
Yes. When I write a script, I very rarely see an actor in my head; I’m hoping that an actor will walk in the door and reveal to me who the character is. With this film, the two main characters are soul mates, so we knew we were looking for two actors who you understand are devoted to each other just in seeing them for the very first time. KiKi didn’t have a lot of experience, but she sent in a tape and right away I saw what I was looking for in this character. Tish speaks with two voices: She’s a girl, but also a woman at the same time. Stephan just has this vitality, spirit, and life force within him that you slowly see dissipate [in the film]. We found those two young people, and it just felt like they had this spiritual connection between them.
The novel was published in 1974, but it sadly feels far too pertinent right now.
It’s a very particular window into American life. We thought about updating the story and resetting it to present day, but the power of it is in acknowledging that so many of those things that Mr. Baldwin was writing about 45 years ago are still very much relevant today.
With that in mind, what do you hope the audience takes away from watching the movie?
I hope that — especially in the time we’re living in now — people walk away with a really rich sense of how love, family, and community can function to save us from so many different things. I think that ultimately the film is hopeful. It speaks the truth of the experience of these characters and the ordeal they have to go through, but I hope the greatest takeaway is this feeling that love and family still unite us and help us weather the storms of American life.
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly’s 2018 Entertainers of the Year issue, available in four different covers. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.