deep dives

How Barry Jenkins Brought the Experience of Reading James Baldwin to the Screen

Photo: Annapurna Releasing

Some spoilers below for If Beale Street Could Talk.

Fresh off of the success of his Oscar-winning sophomore feature Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s next project was one that he had in the works for over five years: a James Baldwin film, faithful in every sense of the idea. Not just bringing Baldwin’s words to life, but also the lush, complicated feelings they inspire. Not just capturing the story, but also the ethos from which it sprung. When we sit down to talk in September about the adaptation process, Jenkins’s borderline-religious reverence for the writer comes through in small and big ways. He frequently refers to him as “Mr. Baldwin.” He’s conscious of the malleability of Baldwin’s prose, specifically when to leave it alone and when to mold it to the demands of the frame. And he’s open about being in constant conversation with the text, which is as alive as it was upon publication in 1974.

Beale Street follows 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a young woman who struggles to clear the name of her fiancé, and father of her unborn child, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) after he’s falsely accused of rape and imprisoned for the crime. Tish’s family — her mother Sharon (Regina King), her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), and her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) — works tirelessly to bring Fonny back to the world, but the legal and financial odds are stacked against them. As the stress of Fonny’s situation mounts, Tish struggles with her pregnancy, anxious to bring a child into such an unforgiving world, despite being surrounded by the love of her family.

About halfway through If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin invokes the old Negro spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?” the song goes, with Daniel as the exemplar whom God delivers from captivity. In the context of Baldwin’s book, though, Daniel isn’t a heroic ideal, but a common black man, one that has faced the brunt of racial prejudice in 20th-century America and suffered greatly for it. With Daniel’s fear and vulnerability on display, Baldwin asks for his deliverance, but concludes with a grave diagnosis: “The song is old, the question remains unanswered.”

Earlier in the novel, Fonny and Tish announce to Tish’s parents that they plan to get married. After Fonny and Joseph, Tish’s father, converse privately, Joseph gives his blessing to the two of them, pleased to give his daughter away to a man who loves her. He puts Tish’s hand in Fonny’s and tells them, “Take care of each other. You going to find out that it’s more than a notion.”

“The song is old, the question remains unanswered.” “Take care of each other. You going to find out that it’s more than a notion.” These two lines evoke oppositional ideas and emotions — ambiguity versus security, dread versus tenderness, old pain versus new love — and yet they’re entwined by Baldwin’s worldview, one that’s equal parts severe and empathetic. If Beale Street Could Talk explores an innocent black man’s place in a rigged criminal-justice system, as well as the black community’s bottomless well of strength in the face of constant strife. Baldwin juxtaposes hope against hopeless, love against hate, because that duality is, was, and continues to be a way of life for black Americans fighting for a piece of the pie.

Jenkins’s film adaptation of Beale Street doesn’t feature either of those two powerful moments from the novel, but they resonate in every scene. “Some of what we do in this film, visually and aesthetically, is meant to mirror the experience of reading Baldwin, literally the way he constructs ideas and scenes and describes imagery,” Jenkins explains. That intention extends to the film’s macro structure (two parallel narratives, pre- and post-Fonny’s imprisonment), perspective (Tish narrates the film), and tone (romantic/compassionate, bleak/unsparing). Sometimes, for Jenkins, it was as simple as maintaining the literary fidelity of key scenes from the novel: a fraught, frank discussion between two families upon learning about Tish’s pregnancy; a key digression into Tish’s experience working behind a perfume counter, specifically how white and black men engage with her services; Joseph and Frank (Michael Beach), Fonny’s father, commiserating about the difficulties of providing for their children.

“It was a fluid, organic process of allowing the film to dictate when it was appropriate to cede the floor to Baldwin,” Jenkins explains. “But sometimes, it was like, ‘No, we don’t need Baldwin to speak here.’ These actors are Baldwin enough. The images could stand on their own.”

Jenkins provided his actors the freedom to convey the novel’s established interiority through their performances. Though Jenkins didn’t make the cast read the novel, he says that, “pretty much to a man or woman, everyone who signed on to the project came into the audition or the casting process having read the book,” and it shows, especially in the supporting performances. (Jenkins singled out Ed Skrein, Pedro Pascal, and Brian Tyree Henry as “dudes [who] love them some Baldwin.”)

“Anybody who’s not KiKi Layne or Stephan James in this film has to do more with less,” says Jenkins. “They just have less screen time and less dialogue, and yet the roles are crucial to building this fabric, this community around our main characters. Ed Skrein was talking about the way James Baldwin described Officer Bell and the way Officer Bell looked at Fonny, and I’m like, Yes, that shit is in the performance.”

Similarly, Jenkins spends little time with Tish’s sister Ernestine, but Baldwin’s headstrong, self-possessed characterization radiates through Parris’s performance. Fonny’s friend Daniel has only one major sequence to his name, but Brian Tyree Henry imbues his character with a mix of carefree joy and hardened fear that lingers after he’s left the screen. Restaurant owner Pedrocito and landlord Levy, kind souls on the side of our main couple, are respectively defined by Diego Luna and Dave Franco’s bone-deep compassion. These performances are primarily informed by Baldwin’s panoramic sense of empathy, one that sought to provide everybody, even the monsters, at least some humanity.

Many film adaptations use their source material merely as a jumping-off point for a director or a screenwriter’s personal vision, but Jenkins’s Beale Street remains staunchly in simpatico with Baldwin’s text. “Everybody knew from the jump that I wanted to make a faithful adaptation and that I had this deep love and respect for Mr. Baldwin,” says Jenkins. “That gave them the license to come into the day’s scene work or come into the audition process and be like, ‘Hey, this thing in the book …’”

“Sometimes when you work on an adaptation,” he continues, “the book is the book, and the script is the script, but in this case, I was very okay with people bringing things from the book. There’s all this interiority in the book that you couldn’t possibly ever squeeze into a feature film, but those things are in the performances.”

While Beale Street’s actors channel Baldwin’s characterizations, Jenkins assumes his worldview, at least up to a point. Jenkins conserves Baldwin’s benevolence and rage, but he openly admits that he sanded off some edges of his worldview, particularly the writer’s antipathy toward America, which stemmed from his experiences with prejudice as a gay, black man in the 1940s. In the novel, Baldwin describes New York, through Tish, as “the ugliest and dirtiest city in the world,” a place that’s “so close to hell that you can smell the people frying.” The New York of Baldwin’s Beale Street is claustrophobic and dangerous, an area not necessarily fit for the growing Rivers family. Yet, the New York of Jenkins’s Beale Street bursts with bright color and opportunity. Cinematographer James Laxton breathes a gentle affection for the film’s reconstruction of 1970s Harlem, one that exhibits passion as much as menace. His warm camera follows Fonny and Tish’s footsteps as they traverse the city streets, with their love almost painting the city in a fresher light.

“I will say,” Jenkins clarifies regarding Baldwin’s view of America, “it’s not a kind contempt, but it is a constructive contempt. He was writing with the belief that the American ideal, or just America itself, was salvageable, that this idea of greatness in America was actually possible, but through rigorous interrogation.”

Ultimately, Jenkins refocuses that contempt toward the country’s systemic injustice and its historical failure to elevate the black experience, yet stops short of, as he puts it, “this idea that we should just burn it all the fuck down.” Upon writing the first draft of the screenplay, Jenkins admits he asked himself, How much contempt can one two-hour film hold?

Jenkins does exercise some of that deep-seated anger in a lengthy scene, taken almost word for word from Baldwin, featuring Fonny and his old friend Daniel, who had recently been released from prison over trumped-up charges. The two gleefully catch up with each other and share memories, but soon their conversation turns to a darker, more vulnerable place. Daniel hints at the abuse he faced in prison and the fear that the system bore into him, while Fonny expresses his wish to escape America entirely. While historically obvious, it’s still jarring to hear a character plainly say, “But man — this country really do not like niggers.”

I asked Jenkins if he connected with that type of blunt speech. “The thing of it is … I haven’t heard those exact words, but I’ve been in rooms where my uncles gather when I was a kid, which is closer to this time period than we are now, and they would have these conversations, conversations that are rooted in this despair that seems unapproachable, that seems unsolvable.”

He goes on to praise James and Tyree Henry for how they tackled the scene, providing a sense of realism to shared sorrow between friends. “What I love the most about it is the way Stephan and Brian start off almost as though they’re cotton candy in the air. They’re just so happy to see each other. Over the course of, it feels like 30 minutes, but it’s really over the course of 11 or 12 minutes, they just peel back every single layer there is, until really just the brutal, pained, prickly, vulnerable side of themselves is the only thing left.”

Yet, just as much as anger, Beale Street exudes love of all stripes — romantic, familial, brotherly — Tish and Fonny’s shared ardor frequently reaches poetic heights, especially during the flashbacks to their courtship when they’re just exploring their feelings and their bodies. Their love feeds into the love from Tish’s family, including Joseph, her father, who does absolutely everything in his power to make his daughter feel safe. Jenkins singles out a small moment between Tish and her father that touches grown men in the audience.

“It’s this very simple scene where [Joseph] is sitting in the kitchen and Tish is having these night pains. She’s vomiting. She comes into the kitchen and he just takes her into his arms. It breaks grown men down, man. We had this test screening and this guy is like [in a tough-guy voice], ‘Man, you know, this is not my kind of movie. I watch Marvel movies. I like action. But man,’ and he got all choked up, ‘when he took the daughter into his arms, man, that just broke me. That’s when you got me.’ I’m like, yeah, 90 minutes into the film!”

Jenkins retained the vast majority of Beale Street’s narrative, but naturally certain scenes didn’t make the final cut. Some flashbacks are excised, including ones that explore Fonny and Tish’s childhood, and many character introductions are necessarily compressed. Yet, Jenkins remembers one scene in particular that epitomized Baldwin’s empathy but remained on the cutting-room floor.

“There’s a scene with Tish and Officer Bell,” the racist cop, played by Ed Skrein, responsible for Fonny’s arrest. “It’s taken from the book,” says Jenkins, “it’s pretty late in the book, one of the few times where the exact place it falls in the book was the exact place it falls in the film. Tish says, ‘I saw Bell everywhere and all the time. We spoke once.’ We actually created that scene. We shot on these really long lenses up in the Bronx when we re-created Little Italy there. She walks past camera, and he’s looking after her, so he’s looking toward camera. He looks down, his shoulders kinda droop, and he starts to drift away. It’s like, Huh, there’s a real person in there. There’s a real person in there.”

The biggest change from the novel, though, is the ending. Baldwin’s novel ends on a dark note, starkly juxtaposing a birth and a suicide, while providing intimations of Fonny’s unspoken trauma. Jenkins, however, sought to provide a grounded finish to the story that acknowledged the situation’s grim reality while also providing a measure of peace for the black family at the film’s center.

“At the conclusion of this experience where we cover quite a bit of what actually happens in the book, and there’s some heavy shit in this book, I just felt like the audience needed something definitive and conclusive about this family,” Jenkins explains. “As we watch the film, and we shared it with more people, we just saw there was this darkness that was hanging over the ending. That to me was almost darkening this thing that on the page felt like hope, which was the birth of this child. So I was looking for a way to, in very clear, conclusive terms, show that this black family that we’ve been dealing and living with, that this black family is the way, somehow, black folks have survived for generations, this familial bond. I wanted to show that even in this story, where you see the father and the mother go through so much shit, that even that family bond has not been broken.”

“I felt like [the ending] had fidelity to the situation,” Jenkins continues. “I wanted a grounded, conclusive, plausible ending to the story of that circumstance that also showed the family was still fucking intact. I’m sure you can tell that I love this novel. It was hard to insert myself that aggressively in altering the ending, but I just had to do it. I did it because the characters dictated that I do it.”

“I’m still wrestling with it,” Jenkins admits. “Not that I’m still debating the ending, but I’m still coming to terms with the fact that the film did say to me that the ending needed to be justified.”

Since we live in a time when all art is politically charged just by the nature of its release date, it’s expected that the film version of Beale Street will be praised for its relevance, as if the black American struggle was ever an irrelevant avenue for film. Though Baldwin’s text is both evergreen and bound to its cultural context, Jenkins felt no need to update his story for our current moment or force fit a Trumpian filter onto the action, which neatly allows the past and the present to exist on the same plane.

“My approach was to not apply a modern thematic aesthetic to it,” Jenkins insists. “The aesthetics are one thing. I can’t make a film like a filmmaker in 1974. It would just be mental jujitsu. I don’t know how to get my way into that. But I think leaving the film set in the period in which it was written and published, the commentary that was there to be made was pursuant to the time period. I think the power in that, of course, is that so much of the imagery in this film, at least as I’ve been told from people who’ve seen it, even though it’s pursuant to 1974, is still relevant and very much needed today.”

“It’s the kind of movie that has a very sturdy frame,” he says, “but it’s also delicate at the same time. It’s almost like the atmosphere. When meteors keep hitting the atmosphere, they just bounce off ‘cause it’s not the right angle.”

As for contemporary parallels, Jenkins states it plainly: “It’s just Baldwin, bruh. This idea of things being timely … it’s just Baldwin, man. It’s just Baldwin.”

Barry Jenkins on Bringing James Baldwin to the Screen