Ahead of its UK premiere, director Barry Jenkins and the stars of If Beale Street Could Talk discuss the real-life stories that inspired them
“I guess I’m really into tragic love,” laughs Barry Jenkins. “But I don’t think I make typical love stories.” You’ll always find love in the director’s cinematic worlds, burrowed but intact under layers of beauty, pain and swelling noise: first in 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, then in 2016 with Moonlight, a gorgeous, achingly vulnerable story of black masculinity that won Jenkins the Academy Award for best picture. Within Moonlight, amid the sound and fury of lead character Chiron’s turbulent youth, there’s love, too – impossible and complex, but vital and nuanced, anchoring the boy (and, later, the man) to a difficult world. For his third feature, Jenkins has found himself drawn to another love story – this time, the sweeping, doomed romance of If Beale Street Could Talk.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, the film takes place in early-70s Harlem, and centres on a young African-American couple trying to build a life together. Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers has just discovered she’s pregnant, while her fiance Fonny Hunt sits in jail, falsely accused of rape. Moving fluidly between the couple’s halcyon courtship and their difficult present, the film sees Tish and her family fight for Fonny’s freedom, all the while conscious of an unjust system built to work against them.
So when Jenkins says that he’s drawn to tragic love, he means it. Beale Street is a story of lives shattered by the state’s institutional racism. Interlaced with Tish and Fonny’s narrative are the whispered voices of many more like them, victims of systemic injustice and the prejudice on which modern America was founded. Although a period drama, it’s impossible not to trace the bloodlines of Jenkins’ film right up to the present day. Perhaps what makes Beale Street so affecting is the romance at its heart – despite the world trying to tear them apart, Tish and Fonny’s love is a force of nature. The kind of earth-shattering, once-in-a-lifetime adoration some people spend forever looking for.
Following on from the success of Moonlight, Jenkins could have had his pick of Hollywood’s A-list for Beale Street, and the film is certainly resplendent with established names, from Diego Luna and Regina Hall to Dave Franco and Brian Tyree Henry. Yet for his leading couple, Jenkins chose relative newcomer Stephan James and KiKi Layne, who had never acted in a film before. As Fonny and Tish, their chemistry lights up the screen, as crucial to the film as Jenkins’s discerning eye for detail, or Nicholas Britell’s soaring score. It’s clear from speaking to Jenkins and his cast that, as well as being a love story, Beale Street is a true labour of love – a tribute to Baldwin, but also to their own families, and to the experience of being a black American throughout time.
Barry, when did you discover the work of James Baldwin?
Barry Jenkins: When I was an undergrad, a woman I’d been dating, after we broke up, recommended that I read Baldwin as a way to expand my view of what manhood and the patriarchy were. So she had me read The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room, and it was a very eye-opening experience. Through the prism of Mr Baldwin, I realised how limited my view of those things were.
Barry Jenkins: But I didn’t have the rights to this book when I adapted it. Five years after Medicine I took a trip to Europe, and wrote both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. I thought I would make this before I made Moonlight, then I released you can’t legally do that. I started talking to the James Baldwin estate (about Beale Street) in early 2014, so I was developing a relationship with the estate over the three-year window between first sending them the script and the premiere of Moonlight. I was working on a bunch of other things post-Medicine which just didn’t work out. And the reason for them not working out, which I didn’t understand at the time – but I think I might realise now – is that those things just weren’t as personal as they needed to be. These last two films have been viscerally personal because of my reverence for Mr Baldwin and the importance of his work.
“I needed the film to be a mirror and show that these are the real children... and here is where too many of them end up” – Barry Jenkins
And how, all these years later, did you go about casting the project? How did you discover Stephan and KiKi?
Barry Jenkins: I rarely have an actor in mind for the character when I write. I’m hoping someone will walk through the door, you know, and reveal who the character is to me. With Tish, I knew I was looking for someone who could really bring that duality to (the character’s) voice. All of the things we see her going through she’s experiencing for the first time, but in her narration she’s speaking as a woman from this very wise place, (looking back at) the things we’re experiencing through her character. When KiKi sent her tape in, I saw that duality in her performance.
Stephan was someone that I knew of, and I didn’t think of him as Fonny at first, partly because there’s this element of colourism in the novel and Fonny is written as very light-skinned. But there was something in Stephan’s eyes, and I’m a sucker for actors with this very soulful, deep-spirited feeling in their eyes. He just showed me that he was the one.
Stephan James: Barry and I had lunch in LA, and he shared with me his vision for the film. I remember going into the meeting thinking that Barry is reminiscent of James Baldwin in a way, and I could really see how passionate he was to tell the story. At that point I had already (convinced myself) that I was going to be in the film, I just wanted him to believe too!
KiKi Layne: Going into the chemistry read I had no idea what to expect, but what was special about reading with Stephan was that we felt we could just have fun with each other. We were immediately comfortable with playing around and giving. We would do the scene one way, then try it again, playing around with the scene and with each other while doing that. Beale Street was actually the first novel of Baldwin’s that I’ve read – I did it in preparation for the film, at the chemistry reading.
Stephan James: Me too. I knew about James Baldwin the activist and humanitarian, and some of the other work that he did as a poet, but I didn’t necessarily know his novels. I’d heard of Beale Street, but I didn’t know the story. I got the chance to (discover) Baldwin’s writing on this project.
Memory and a sense of place are so crucial to the story of Beale Street. Where did you grow up, and how did you first become involved in cinema?
KiKi Layne: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’ve been interested in being an actress since I was little. I was seven years old when I started going to a performing arts school to study drama, and I continued to study it in college in Chicago. Then I worked for a few years in a Chicago theatre before I moved to LA to pursue it, and then I got this opportunity.
Stephan James: I grew up in a suburb of Toronto called Scarborough. It was me, my two brothers and my mom. She raised us three and she always had high hopes and huge expectations for us all. But even though she wanted us to be doctors and lawyers, she always supported our creative endeavours. She was a singer and writer, and my older brother was a dancer and actor, and I guess I got the bug. I started taking drama classes, which was interesting for me because I’ve always been a reserved person, and I never really knew if I could be that expressive in front of other people. But when I started getting more involved in theatre I got more comfortable in my own skin.
Barry Jenkins: My earliest memories of film would be around these big Hollywood black movies – I remember going as a family to see The Color Purple and Coming to America. Those are my earliest experiences of the cinema, and then I remember really loving Die Hard because it showed on television quite a bit and it’s an awesome film. It wasn’t until I got into university and started studying film that I (was introduced to) the kind of cinema that I love today, that I think has been a heavy influence on my work.
How much trepidation did you feel in taking this book to the screen?
Barry Jenkins: Quite a bit – but not in the sense of, ‘Oh my God, I have to follow this little movie we made which won best picture!’ (laughs) It was in the sense that I have been reading this author for half my life, and reading him in a way that was earth- shattering and in some ways life-saving. So to be entrusted with bringing that work into the world in a different form, and then having the responsibility of protecting his voice... That was terrifying, man. It was quite difficult, to be brutally honest.
KiKi Layne: I definitely felt so much excitement, because I knew I was going to be a part of something so special. Of course I was nervous, but I was mostly excited for the opportunity, especially because, with Beale Street, I feel like we haven’t had a chance to tell a story like this before, for black love to be portrayed how it’s portrayed in the film. I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.
Stephan James: There were a few nerves (for me) at first, but the crazy thing about Barry is he exudes none of that energy at all – it’s hard to feel pressure when the man telling the story, the man pointing the camera at you, doesn’t seem pressured. That’s one of his gifts as a director. Everyone just came to work with a sense of care, a sense of pride in their work, and it was just able to play itself out.
Barry Jenkins: I think that, when you’re working on material which scares you a little bit, which challenges you, it often pushes you to aesthetically or creatively do the things that you couldn’t do otherwise.
Were there any stories that inspired you when making Beale Street, beyond Baldwin’s work?
KiKi Layne: My experiences with my family were a big inspiration for Tish. I reached out to my mom and sister-in-law about their experiences of pregnancy, and what it was like for them. I also paid a lot of attention to prison stories from the time.
Stephan James: My biggest inspiration for Fonny was a young man named Kalief Browder, who at 16 years old was arrested and charged for a crime that he did not commit, and in order to maintain his innocence pleaded not guilty. He was in jail for three years, most of which he spent in solitary confinement. Watching his story, seeing the aftermath and the toll that took on him... Kalief ultimately took his life because of the trauma that he experienced while he was wrongly incarcerated. With this role I felt like I was a vessel to translate these stories, to tell the stories of so many other young minorities who have been locked up, falsely imprisoned and are fighting for their innocence.
KiKi Layne: I looked at the Kalief Browder story too, especially how it affected his family.
Barry Jenkins: The movie is a work of fiction, but all stories filtered through the prism of Baldwin are based on some very real things. Even when I was writing the script, I felt like I wanted to underscore some elements of the film, to show that there are many children like Fonny, so there’s a photomontage when Tish is describing the children of our age. I needed the film to be a mirror and show that these are the real children, the conditions they grew up in, and here is where too many of them end up. Underscoring (the fact) that Fonny’s story is not unique was important to me in telling this narrative.
“It speaks to the power of love and connectedness, but also having to deal with all the things that affect the black community” – KiKi Layne
And did those themes resonate on a personal level, as well as a political one?
Stephan James: I’ve never seen a story like this being told in this way, exposing the reality for a lot of people today in America, especially a lot of young male African-Americans. To be a fly on the wall of all those prison scenes, but also to see what black love looks like, to see the humanity around people deemed as criminals... I feel like these are all really important things, and that’s why I wanted to do this film. I admire Barry for taking on stories like this – with Moonlight I was struck because I’d never seen a queer black story told in that way. He’s doing something that is so innovative, and I truly believe he’s gonna be one of the most important directors of our time, if he isn’t already. He’s changing the way we see film, and it’s a crazy thing to be a part of. I wish I had better words to explain, but I’m just happy to be championing these stories alongside a guy like him.
KiKi Layne: To me, it speaks to the power of love and connectedness, but also having to deal with all the things that affect the black community, and having to power through. I’ve never seen anything that depicts love so beautifully as a source of power, a source of strength, as this thing to hold on to and get you through whatever it is you’re going through. Tish and Fonny’s relationship could have gone a completely different way, and Tish is encouraged to press into that love and not allow it to be destroyed by her circumstances. She has to work even harder than she did before to do all that.
The transcendental power of their love really does feel like something we’re lucky to witness as an audience.
Stephan James: Not to be too cliche, but Romeo and Juliet was a big part of my research going in to this film. That balance of absolute, undying love but epic tragedy at the same time – just seeing that balance and looking on both sides of the spectrum. Baldwin is Shakespearean in a way – he has his own sort of language, and that really resonated with me going into Beale Street.
Barry Jenkins: There was one day on set when we were shooting in Tish and Fonny’s apartment, which had all these books in it. I said to Stephan, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ He had picked up one of the books, and it turned out to be Romeo and Juliet. We did a little scene of them in bed, passing Romeo and Juliet back and forth, reading it to each other, but it was so on the nose, we were like, ‘We can’t put this in the film!’ (laughter) My favourite love stories are shrouded in pain or difficult circumstances, like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. My biggest influence for Beale Street was (Marcel Camus’s 1959 tragic romance) Black Orpheus, but with the genders reversed. Tish is on this journey to try and save Fonny from purgatory. And now I’m thinking of Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. It’s a love story but it’s not about a traditional kind of love – it’s about the intersection of religion and the human heart’s capacity for love, to love more than one person and the morality of that. So it’s not a typical love story...
If Beale Street Could Talk is in UK cinemas from February 8, 2019