EXCLUSIVE: Barry Jenkins on making ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ at ‘peak Blackness’

The Oscar-winning director has delivered another masterpiece.

Barry Jenkins
(Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

If Beale Street Could Talk is already stirring up Hollywood ahead of its Christmas Day release and for good reason. Barry Jenkins has delivered another masterpiece with the adaptation of the James Baldwin novel.

If the Academy gets things right, Jenkins may find himself with another Best Picture contender just one year after he won the top honor for his film, Moonlight.

When we caught up with Jenkins to discuss Beale Street, I told him that the experience I had while watching the film evoked emotions that stirred inside me for days. While many of those emotions were heavy, early moments of the film made me feel warm, fuzzy, and represented in a way I’m not used to.

“That sequence in the novel is so potent and so powerful and it did conjure the emotions in the film that you’re describing right now,” said Jenkins. “Making a film is such a stop and go process, but we did feel like we were doing something at ‘peak Blackness’ as they say. It was really fun because that side of James Baldwin doesn’t get talked about as much as the activist side so it was nice to sort of lean in to this very down home, backyard cookout kind of feeling.”

Another strength of Beale Street is the way it effortlessly conveys the feeling of the story, of the time, and of the stakes. It’s subtleties somehow create a constant intensity that’s palpable throughout the film.

“I think when you read the novel, those qualities stick out as well,” says Jenkins. “It’s a pretty simple story but because of the way Mr. Baldwin commands language, a very simple story becomes very provocative in his hands and so it was almost like a quality of James Baldwin’s work that we fought to preserve in the film.”

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Most of the film, however, illuminates an infuriating and painful reality that doesn’t ever evolve into a happy ending.

“That’s not the way James Baldwin works. It’s just not. The reality of the situation doesn’t lend itself to ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ in the way we are used to seeing it,” says Jenkins. “I think the ending is hopeful in a certain way. The strength if the family is still in tact and the bond and the power of love is still enveloping this couple and is still enveloping this family. I think it’s an optimistic ending but not a happy one.”

What makes the work so even more powerful and poignant is the fact that it’s as relevant and relatable today as it was when Baldwin published the novel in 1974. Recognizing that reality is something that left me feeling deeply disturbed and quite sad.

“I think that’s fair and that is a feeling I can see people walking away with. It’s quite a heavy feeling. I think the people that Tish and Fonny were at the beginning of the film, they’re just not those people anymore. Those people are left in the past but they have been shaped into new people. Those people are different but I think just as strong. The innocence has been taken away but not the life,” he says.

“I think that people have really been playing with this idea of a grounded reality. They’re not walking out with a high from a happy ending but I think people are walking out feeling full because despite the difficulty the family in this movie endures, they still walk away with a bit of hope and optimism.” 

Barry Jenkins shares breathtaking trailer for James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

The film features incredible performances by an extremely talented cast that includes veterans like Regina King (Sharon Rivers), Colman Domingo (Joseph Rivers), Michael Beach (Frank Hunt), and Aunjanue Ellis (Mrs. Hunt) alongside two young leads, Kiki Layne (Tish Rivers) and Stephan James (Alfonso “Fonny” Hunt.)

When asked how the cast dealt with the weight of tackling the work of such a treasured work, and the pressure of being directed by Jenkins following the success of Moonlight, he explained their approach with a modesty that’s uncommon for Oscar winners.

“I think it’s just about the characters and the scene work. This is only my third film so there’s no reason for anybody to be intimidated by me,” he said. 

“I think we all were just humbled by the idea, myself included, of adapting the work of James Baldwin. We all just sort of huddled up and had to find a way to do it together. I think when you’re sharing the burden then it’s easier to understand that it’s OK to make mistakes and that the thing we are doing is not precious. I think when you start treating it like this precious object then you’re not actually interrogating the work.”