Harlem Serenade: Barry Jenkins brings 'Moonlight' magic to James Baldwin's 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

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If John Ford’s westerns recount the white, European narrative of settlement in America, they are also archetypal stories of ordinary men and women who are called to extraordinary acts of heroism. It is the latter quality that makes them Hollywood classics. Other cinematic narratives have emerged in recent years of those whose lands Europeans seized, and those whose forced migration sustained America’s early economy. Among the films that recount the legacy of that violence, the work of African-American writer-director Barry Jenkins stands apart. His screenplays embed history in characters and their destinies, ennobling them in the process. Jenkins, not unlike John Ford, realizes that the sweep of history is best understood through the depiction of men and women whose lives assume tragic dimensions.

Jenkins’ latest film centers on a working-class black family in Harlem. If Beale Street Could Talk (from Annapurna Pictures) is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel that fictionalizes the African-American narrative of what Langston Hughes called “a dream deferred.” The 40-year-old Oscar winner (for 2016’s Moonlight) was at the New York Film Festival for the American premiere of his third feature. “I had been a fan of Baldwin for many, many years,” Jenkins says during an October telephone interview in New York City, “especially Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time.” A friend suggested he read Beale Street.

The novel’s first-person voice is that of Tish Rivers, a 19-year-old African-American woman living in Harlem in the 1970s. In the novel and in the opening sequence of the film, Tish explains that Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, her lover, is in prison. Fonny is an artist, and Tish works at a department store perfume counter. Her recounting of her afternoon visit with Fonny is depicted in a scene at the jail in which she confesses that she is pregnant. Tish’s voiceover narration reveals her inner thoughts during that scene and throughout the movie.

Jenkins’ screenplay is faithful to the novel, moving as Baldwin does between the present and the past, between the dashed hopes of the young couple after Fonny’s arrest and the longstanding friendship of their families that served as the foundation for their relationship. “There was such a freedom in the visual language that Baldwin uses in the novel,” Jenkins observes, “and the freedom he gave himself, shifting from this tense to that tense, especially with Tish.” Jenkins credits his Oscar-nominated film editors on Moonlight, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, for the movie’s fluid transitions. “You see Tish in these very innocent moments where she is naive, and then we shift to the other tense or the other time,” he says, “and now she is a woman speaking from experience, almost referentially, about an incident the audience just witnessed. It is a very delicate balance, almost tightrope, but it was something that Baldwin carried off masterfully in the novel. It was a great challenge as a visual storyteller to do the same thing.”

Jenkins’ preference for a non-sequential style of storytelling is not as apparent in his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), as it is in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. “At the time, Moonlight seemed like a really unorthodox approach to linearity,” the filmmaker says, “just because the main character was portrayed by three different actors, but this movie is a larger degree of difficulty as far as linearity in story structure. It is much more ambitious, I would say—and, again, that’s just us taking inspiration from the novel.”

Music is essential to Jenkins’ mise-en-scène, and in Beale Street the inspiration is partly derived from the novel. Tish often refers to specific artists, such as Ray Charles, and songs, including the jazz standard “Compared to What?” “A film score should be an organism that may mutate or take a different form from act one to act two,” Jenkins explains, “but there is a DNA there that keeps it the same.” The filmmaker studied with the late Richard Portman, a legendary re-recording mixer and Oscar winner. “On the first day at film school, he told us: ‘Film is 50 percent visual and 50 percent audio, yet you guys come here thinking that film is 95 percent picture and five percent audio,’” Jenkins recalls. “He taught us never to make that mistake.” Jenkins does not—the excellent mix on this film is from “Game of Thrones” re-recording artists Onnalee Blank and Matt Waters.

One of the filmmaker’s closest collaborators is composer Nicholas Britell, who has worked on all three of his features. “Nick’s strongest instrument is the piano, but his life is as a world-class, classically trained cellist,” Jenkins says. “Because of that, we end up working quite a bit with cellos, as we did on Beale Street.” Baldwin was a “jazz man,” so Britell and Jenkins thought brass would lead in their orchestral score. While the novel is set in Baldwin’s birthplace, its title pays homage to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a place of great significance to African-American culture and music in the early 20th century. “Nick was composing for brass but we were playing it with strings, and that opened up this whole other world of possible sounds,” Jenkins explains. “Late in the film, we bring the brass back. What you end up with is something that is not jazz, and it’s not blues, and it’s not orchestral—it’s just ‘Beale Street.’ It’s the film.”

Jenkins’ modesty is apparent throughout the interview, the hallmark of an artist with a deep commitment to learning and evolving, to approaching each project with fresh eyes. Asked if there were new lessons on If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins replies: “Going from Moonlight to Beale Street was challenging, because in Moonlight maybe actors say five words, whereas in Beale Street characters are talking and talking and talking! That was new, and it was a boon for me.”

While working with young actors is not a novelty for Jenkins, his Beale Street star, KiKi Layne, had very little experience on a movie set. “As a director, you have to invent a language with each actor,” he notes. “KiKi, who comes from theatre and is used to drawing energy from a scene partner, found it very difficult to look into the camera. She once said that it was ‘like looking into a black hole.’”

As for Stephan James, Jenkins says: “Stephan is what I think of as a ‘moonlight guy.’ His eyes are a direct path to his soul.” James, who was excellent in his turn as Jesse Owens in Stephen Hopkins’ Race (2016), exhibits a very different part of himself as Fonny. “There is so much heartbreak, so much brokenness in those eyes,” Jenkins observes. “I think young men who may have had similar experiences, or anyone who sees that performance, is going to connect, no matter their race or creed or class or sexuality.” In fact, James perfectly embodies Baldwin’s Black Everyman who, rich or poor, educated or blue-collar, is subjected, as Baldwin was, to racism and the worst sort of injustices. “I don’t begrudge Baldwin’s ending that leads to the extreme tragedy that befalls Fonny and his father,” the writer-director says. “The novel is lush and romantic when it’s romantic, but hot damn, is it angry!”

Jenkins struggled with Baldwin’s denouement. “There is such weight in the story and sometimes real life is one thing and art is another thing,” he says. “I wanted to leave the story with some hope, grounded in a reality. As you said, that one-day-at-a-time struggle of many working-class families is a certain kind of tragedy. I felt that there was hope in showing that the family was intact—irreparably altered but intact.” Jenkins won an Oscar because he is a talented Hollywood-style filmmaker, yet he is also a black man making movies from that point of view, distinct from the equally important but very different historical narratives.

Like John Ford, a first-generation American whose movies represent a somewhat flawed history (some say a racist one, eliding Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn) for the country he loved and served in two wars, Jenkins is driven by a great affection for the African-American claim to America. “The fact of being black has had a very large impact on how I see the world, and certainly had a large impact on how the world sees me,” he says, when asked about his future in Hollywood. “This point of view is both intellectual and emotional, but also aesthetic. Even without intending to, I will continue to chart this course—being black will be my compass.”