How Barry Jenkins Planted The Seed For Adapting ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Long Before ‘Moonlight’ Oscar Victory
“Love cannot be taken from your heart,” says Barry Jenkins. “Love is too important.”
It is a lesson the director of Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight—both films about love’s survival in spite of challenging circumstances—has finally learned. “You’ve made me sound like a f*cking romantic,” he told me two years ago, when we discussed Moonlight. “And I’m a craftsman. I am a craftsman, I am a craftsman.” he declared.
“That’s out the window with this film,” he reluctantly admits now, of his new project If Beale Street Could Talk. “Oh man, is that out the window.”
It’s easy to understand why he might have fooled himself out of a romantic response to his own work. Melancholy dealt with a rare connection between two people in a city in which minorities are firmly in the minority. Moonlight dealt with a young boy tortured by his sexuality in a torturous home. And Beale Street is about disenfranchisement; about a relationship that persists when one half is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, almost certain of a long confinement with the odds stacked against him because of his skin color.
“There’s just so much struggle and strife,” he says. “These characters are dealing with so damn much. When they have to fight back, they have to figure out a way to preserve themselves. And that, to me, in some ways, is just the story of black people in America.”
There’s a line in James Baldwin’s book, though—one that forms the backbone of Jenkins’ adaptation—that frames what the movie is about. “Love brought you here,” the line reads. “If you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.” The script adds five more words: “Trust it all the way.”
“It’s this idea,” says Jenkins, “that despite the struggle, despite the strife, you have to look at things through a positive prism. It signifies. It confirms. It makes undeniable the humanity of these characters. The humanity of black people.”
It is only now that its meaning—its importance—has crystallized in Jenkins’ mind. “It’s so easy to be cynical,” he says. “But this idea of love—whether in Beale Street or in Moonlight or anything I’ve done—I wasn’t going to trick myself into rejecting that idea as a philosophical concept. Taking a moment now to process what this film is, it’s not that I’m setting out with an objective, per se. But I can’t deny, looking back on them now, that that is a very foundational aspect of my films.”
LOVE BROUGHT YOU HERE
After Oscar night in February 2017, Barry Jenkins finally held all the cards. It had been a long time coming. Moonlight’s Best Picture victory followed years of struggle to mount a follow-up to his 2008 feature debut. Medicine for Melancholy cost $13,000 to make, and couldn’t even gross as much on its opening weekend. By comparison, the modest $1.5 million in Moonlight’s budget must have felt like winning the lottery.
He had been so used to the struggle that it would be months after Moonlight’s Telluride premiere before he realized how much the movie had caught on. He rationalized it in his mind: “I’m just talking about the movie, right? I’ve done this with other filmmakers for years at Telluride. Wait, am I campaigning? Is this actually happening?”
In fact he was on the Oscar stage before he knew it, and in the days and weeks that followed, everybody in Hollywood wanted to meet Barry Jenkins. It probably didn’t hurt that Moonlight’s eventual victory happened in the oddest of ways. Even after the prize for Best Picture had been announced, Jenkins believed he’d missed out. In one of Oscar’s greatest upsets, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had been handed the wrong envelope, and mistakenly called the award for La La Land. The town would have been curious to hear from the filmmaker at the heart of that controversy. But Moonlight also struck a chord—actively shouting Jenkins’ arrival, where Medicine for Melancholy had managed only a whisper.
“So many filmmakers reached out to offer advice,” he remembers. Their words encouraged the director to keep rationalizing. “These accolades don’t change the actual film, or who the filmmaker was that made it. I wanted to make decisions going forward in the same way that I made decisions about that film, both on set and in regard to my career.”
The film had a gold statue, “but the way it arrived in my hand was just so odd and so weird. It’s not like I was questioning, ‘Do I have a gold statue in my hand?’ But it did lead me to question, ‘Have things really changed? I’m going to proceed as though they haven’t.’”
So he went back to a project he had started on around the same time he’d been adapting Moonlight. With Hollywood at his feet, ready to give a green light to whatever Jenkins might choose to do next, he returned to an adaptation he’d already secured the rights to—rights that had been granted in a pre-Moonlight world.
Jenkins had read If Beale Street Could Talk in the aftermath of making Medicine for Melancholy. It’s a lesser-known work by the highly-regarded James Baldwin (though there’s little in the author’s canon that could be considered lesser-Baldwin) and Jenkins—who had his initial Baldwin epiphany in college—was reading it for the first time.
If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of Tish and Fonny, a young couple grappling with life in 1970s Harlem. As Tish learns she is pregnant with Fonny’s baby, Fonny is arrested for a sexual assault, which he had nothing to do with. We see the story through Tish’s eyes, willing her to fight as she struggles to clear the name of the man she loves. To get him home. But the institutionalized biases of the place she lives conspire to make any hope of Fonny’s release entirely improbable.
“I didn’t expect to find these soulmates in this book,” Jenkins says. “I remember being very emotional when I first read it. And then I remember being terrified.”
The terror came from the idea of adapting it. Baldwin’s work has never been turned into an English-language narrative feature. In 1998, Beale Street became Where the Heart Is, a French film by Robert Guédiguian, which shifted the action to Marseille and recast Tish as a white woman. And in 2016, the year Jenkins released Moonlight, Raoul Peck turned Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House into the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. But that’s it.
It is partly because of the way Baldwin writes. “Film is not the best medium for interiority,” Jenkins says, “and Baldwin’s stock-in-trade was the interior life of human beings. It is not an easy thing to translate. It is not an easy thing to adapt.”
But also, “Black authors have been adapted less than white authors, for reasons that are many, and very obvious. So it’s not surprising people like Mr. Baldwin, or even Toni Morrison, or Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright, have rarely been adapted. Just so many amazing writers whose work hasn’t been translated into visual imagery, which is sad because people aren’t reading as much as they’re watching.”
Jenkins started his career at Harpo Films, and he has never forgotten the lessons he learned from the philosophies of its principal, Oprah Winfrey. “Ms. Winfrey was always clear that part of her mission was to bring people back to these authors. I think, by so many of these amazing writers not being adapted, the work itself has slipped out of the public eye in a way.”
He knew he had to try, even as a particular passage of the book laid out the challenge in his mind. In it, Fonny, a sculptor, considers an untouched block of wood and weighs the possibilities of what he will make it into. “He does not want to defile the wood,” the text reads. It reverberated with Jenkins, because he felt the same about adapting Beale Street. “I saw myself at certain points in my life when I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to get to make this into a film. I’m not good enough; I don’t have access.’ All these reasons why… can’t, don’t, won’t. How utterly debilitating. It’s one thing to lose, but to feel yourself so completely incapable? That’s an extreme loss.”
He did not even start a dialogue with the James Baldwin estate (the author himself died in 1987) until he had a finished screenplay. Instead, he just started to write. He knew that he was breaking the first rule of Screenwriting 101; that adapting a work without securing the rights was almost guaranteed to be a wasted exercise. But he didn’t want anyone looking over his shoulder as he worked out if it was even possible.
“It should have just been a writing exercise,” he confesses now. “The fact I was even able to reach the estate is mindboggling. This was in a pre-Moonlight universe. The fact they even went down the road with me is preposterous. Preposterous! I don’t know what they were thinking.”
When he wrote the estate, he sent a copy of Medicine for Melancholy along with his draft of the adaptation. Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, who had been aware of Medicine for Melancholy, became his champion. “A letter came back saying, ‘OK, hey, you seem pretty interesting. Let’s continue the conversation.’”
He suspects that the Guédiguian film made it easier for them to put their faith in an as-then-untested filmmaker. “It had already been done once before.” But also, Jenkins’ version would be tremendously faithful. He kept the contemporary setting of the novel, which had been published in 1974. He didn’t change anything about Tish, or Fonny, or their respective families, the Rivers and the Hunts. He kept the Harlem setting.
“He honored the book so well in the script,” says Regina King, whom Jenkins would eventually tap to play Tish’s mother, Sharon Rivers. “Baldwin is the Shakespeare of our time, and as a screenwriter, to adapt something from an author like James Baldwin is probably more terrifying than adapting a book by another author. But it needed to be someone whose regard for Baldwin was as strong as Barry’s.”
IF YOU TRUSTED LOVE THIS FAR, DON’T PANIC NOW
There are many moments in Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk in which silence is as important as sound. The moment that so captured Jenkins personally, as Fonny circles his block of wood, is one of them. Regina King gets another, as Sharon Rivers prepares to travel to Puerto Rico to find the woman who is accusing her son of rape. Alone in her bedroom, she fusses over the wig she should wear for the trip, and an encounter that might be crucial in proving her son’s innocence. “She is the matriarch of this family; the one that makes everyone feel better,” says King. “If Sharon says it can be, it can be. But now we’re with her and she’s by herself; nobody else is around. And she’s terrified for her son. What does that moment of fear look like?”
It’s a two-and-a-half minute sequence that exists in almost total silence. In the previous scene, Tish says, “Momma gets to Puerto Rico on an evening plane,” and then we’re in Sharon’s interior world. “Cinema may not be the best medium for interiority, but an actor is,” says Jenkins. “There are moments where that’s all you need. It’s just the actor and the audience, and the actor is inviting the audience into their character’s interior life. And when it works, man, it works.”
In the book—and Jenkins’ original draft—Sharon grapples with a shawl. It was King’s idea that they make it about her wigs. She remembered the wigs that her mother and grandmother wore. “They were their armor,” she says. “They had one wig that they wore when they handled business. Another that they wore when they were going out. Most times, they’re wearing their own hair. But I realized, in the era this film is based in, this woman would not make a trip like that without bringing her wig.”
“It’s just Regina’s face, and the audience, and this wig,” Jenkins says. “I love that, in building this narrative, you arrive at this point where you are now actively empathizing with this character, so why not look directly into her eyes and experience what she’s feeling? I think that’s when the translation of going from one medium to the next really comes to life.”
Though it deals with the most desperate of circumstances, If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie, King says, wrapped in warmth, and typified by this moment. “We need this movie right now. We need this hug. We need to understand love on a universal level. Barry Jenkins can make the global feel personal. He’s a master at that, and he doesn’t even have to try. It just happens to be who he is.”
Though King was familiar with Baldwin’s better-known works, like Jenkins she had not read If Beale Street Could Talk. She started with the script, and felt she owed it to herself to read more. She expected to find something very different; assumed that Jenkins must have changed a lot about the story to make it work on film. What she found instead was a deeper understanding of the characters and the themes Jenkins had so carefully translated.
“It’s like, you might read an article on light bulbs, and then you read the encyclopedia and get so much more information. That’s what the book was. Would we have gotten to the places we got to without reading the book? I think yes, because we had Barry as our leader. But having read the book, it created a shorthand for Barry with his conversations with anyone involved, from the actors to the crew.”
In fact, Jenkins encouraged all of his cast to pick up Baldwin’s novel. “When you make an adaptation, sometimes you go into the process saying, ‘We’re going to leave the book here, and the film is over here.’” Not so with Beale Street. “I was very adamant, ‘You guys can bring the book. Scenes that may not be in the film, they can very much be in your performance.’”
King found Sharon in the pages of the novel. “In the black community, we have overcome so much,” she says. “Usually, the thing that drives us is our relationship with God and with love. Sharon represented my mother and my grandmother. It was the same for Barry. I think we infused those women into Sharon. It was an opportunity to represent the women who were responsible for me being who I am.”
While Tish and Fonny exist at the heart of the film, their families, and even minor characters that appear only briefly, are just as central for Jenkins. Sharon is one, and so too is Joseph, Tish’s father, played by Colman Domingo. Early in the film, we watch as Tish must confess to her father that she is pregnant. She is taken aback when he greets the news with joy rather than castigation. He invites Fonny’s family, including his mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, and his father, played by Michael Beach, to share a drink. Ellis’s character reacts bitterly and throws god-fearing insults at her son’s beloved. She and Sharon square off.
They shot the scene in a real brownstone dressed to fill in for the Rivers’ family home. “Imagine that room,” King says. “It was eight of us and the camera crew in a tiny front room. The energy of being up tight like that added to the scene in a magnificent way. Most of us knew each other, or knew of each other. I hadn’t worked with Aunjanue since we did Ray, so we caught up. It was Michael Beach’s birthday the second day we shot, so we all sang Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. From the moment we got together, we all realized, ‘Wow, this is Baldwin and this is Jenkins, and that seems special.’”
If Barry Jenkins set out to make Beale Street without feeling a change from Moonlight’s Oscar success, in this area of the production—casting—it still proved helpful. Every character in the story carries tremendous weight, but most of them get little more than a scene or two in which to do it.
There are many in the film’s ensemble who came for James Baldwin. Pedro Pascal, who plays a Puerto Rican man Sharon goes to visit in her search her son’s accuser, flew in from the Dominican Republic for a day of shooting because he was such an admirer of the author’s work. But still others signed up because it was Jenkins, too, and because Moonlight had spoken to them. Brian Tyree Henry delivers a one-scene standout that could land him a nomination, as a friend of Fonny’s freshly released from jail. Finn Wittrock plays the eager young lawyer who struggles with his own inexperience in exonerating Fonny. Ed Skrein is the racist police officer, Bell, for whom a run-in with Fonny is reason enough to hound him. Dave Franco rents Tish and Fonny a warehouse home, and Diego Luna plays a waiter who takes a shine to them, offering free food and drink because he simply likes their company; believes in their love.
Jenkins dwells on Luna’s contribution to the film. The actor had come to mind as soon as he started thinking about how to cast the film, but he was reluctant to offer him a part so small. Still, he made the offer, and was thrilled when Luna said yes.
“There was a scene that Diego shot that didn’t make it into the film, but it was so beautiful,” he recalls. It comes from the novel, and involves Luna’s character, Pedrocito, watching Tish as she sits in the restaurant alone and reflects on the times she shared with Fonny before his incarceration. “She’s letting her food get cold, and without asking her, Pedrocito brings out a fresh plate, swaps it, and sits down. They have a conversation that’s about unity and strength.”
He loved the scene. “But the place it falls in the narrative, by that point the movie was all Tish and Fonny’s story, so we had to take it out.” He didn’t get to tell Luna until the moment of the film’s New York Film Festival premiere. “He said, ‘Oh don’t worry, man, I was just happy to be here.’” That is the power, Jenkins infers, of Baldwin’s prose. But it is also the draw of Jenkins. “I saw an article about Diego where he said he modeled his performance in the film after me—that it was basically his impression of me. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
And yet, even if actors did line up to play Baldwin and to play for Jenkins, the two roles that lead the film would offer the greatest casting challenge the director faced. “Trying to find this young couple that very clearly read as soulmates from the very beginning of the film. That was objective number one.” Finding Stephan James to play Fonny. Finding KiKi Layne to play Tish.
TRUST IT ALL THE WAY
“I didn’t find KiKi,” Barry Jenkins corrects. “KiKi found us.”
With his casting director Cindy Tolan, Jenkins scoured far and wide to find actors for Tish and Fonny. He heard KiKi Layne before he ever saw her, on the other side of the camera reading in Tish’s lines for a friend of hers who was auditioning for Fonny.
Her friend had asked her to help him record his self-tape, and she responded instantly to the casting information he had handed her. “I don’t really know what it was, because it was just from looking over the breakdown,” Layne recalls. “But I just felt like something had leaped into my spirit, and I said, ‘But that’s me.’ It wasn’t until two weeks later that I was able to submit my own tape for Tish.”
Her friend didn’t land the part of Fonny. “But he was so excited for me. He’s like my little brother and he’s 100% in my corner,” Layne says. “We’re people of faith, so we felt like it was always meant to come around to me. It happened with him thinking, ‘KiKi would be a great reader for this.’ He saw the film recently, and afterward, I said, ‘I just want to thank you, because you’re the first person that looked at Tish and thought of me.’”
There was something of Tish’s determination in the way Layne had approached the casting. “She didn’t know anybody, and yet she found a way to get her own tape to us,” marvels Jenkins. After he saw her self-tape, he flew her out to do a chemistry read with Stephan James, who had booked the part. James had been working for a few years, and had most memorably played Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race. But it would be Layne’s first role in a feature film. Her first major role of any kind, in fact.
Jenkins was still taken aback when he phoned Layne to tell her she’d booked the part. “She didn’t answer,” he says.
“I didn’t recognize the number,” she protests, grinning.
“I called like five times in a row.”
It was early morning when Layne got the call and she was still in bed. “You called two times! Second time, I felt something say, ‘Girl, pick up that phone,’ so I did. You didn’t even introduce yourself. You started going in on this whole idea about me being asleep. I said, ‘Yes, it’s 9 o’clock in the morning.’ He’s like, ‘No, it’s 12.’ Oh, this person is in New York. And then I put it together; it was Barry.”
Jenkins says calling her personally was a mistake. “I had this idea of it being this fun, really awesome thing for KiKi, but I should have just called her reps.”
“He’s like, ‘Do you even know who you’re talking to?’ I said, ‘I believe I’m speaking to Barry Jenkins, and I’m just trying to be chill right now.’ I can’t even describe the feeling. But I was just trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy.”
It was a mark of how different Layne is from the character she wound up playing. She found more evidence of it when she got to work. “I realized Tish and I are actually really different,” she says. Tish is less confident of her voice than Layne herself. “I had to get past some of my own hang-ups and habits, especially around what strength and vulnerability looks like. Tish and I express those things very differently.”
She struggled with a scene in the aftermath of Fonny’s encounter with Officer Bell. It is the first—perhaps the only—moment in the film in which Tish and Fonny don’t see eye to eye. He sees red; seethes with anger at his mistreatment. He wants to lash out, but Tish counsels calm. “I had to figure out how I, KiKi, would handle the situation versus how Tish handles the situation,” Layne says. “I think I was fighting to stay silent. KiKi would have been more willing to push. That was a tough day.”
But she put in the work. “She took it extremely seriously,” Jenkins recalls. “For someone performing in their first screen role, to have to carry as much weight as KiKi is forced to carry in this movie… It was tough for her.”
“This wasn’t about celebrity for KiKi,” says King. “She comes to acting with an open heart, wanting to learn more, more, more. That’s rare to find in someone of her age. That first scene, where the camera is going over the couple, over the trees, and it lands on her face, and the love in her face is just… I cannot believe we’re only two minutes into the movie and I’m already tearing up. It was just because of the honesty you get from her in this performance, and in that first moment, you know she’s special.”
King extends the same sentiment to James, too. “We were so lucky to have these two at the center, who are passionate and who understood the responsibility they had.”
James instantly recognized himself in Fonny, and fought for the part. He took Jenkins to lunch, and sent him multiple tapes. He felt the exact frustration Fonny feels at his false incarceration. It reminded him of the story of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old boy accused of theft and sentenced to three years in Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide in 2015, two years after his release.
“Beale Street just immediately hit home,” says James. “It really struck me as an opportunity to be a vessel. To be a voice to speak for so many voiceless young men in this country. [Kalief’s story] struck me in a place where I thought, ‘This is only one story. He’s one in a million. There are so many other young men in this country going through exactly the same thing.’”
Beale Street might have been published more than 40 years ago, but it resonates deeply precisely because so little has changed. It was this that validated Jenkins’ feeling that he should hew so closely to the novel, and keep its 1970s setting. Simply put, nothing needed reframing. Nothing needed updating.
“I thought a lot had changed between 1974 and now,” Jenkins reflects. “I thought the roles and rights of women had changed quite a bit. Or at least, I thought that until 2016, and then I understood that they hadn’t changed as much as we all thought they had.”
If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins says, reflects the two voices found across Baldwin’s work. One that is obsessed with sensuality, romanticism and interpersonal relationships, and the other that is just as obsessed with systemic injustice and the disenfranchisement of black America. “They say the best vessel for an idea is a story, and I think the best vessel for a story is a relationship. The story of America is framed through this family. It’s what struck me about the novel, and when people see the film, I hope it strikes them about the film too.”
“What if the person I loved the most in the world was torn away from me over some really unfair B.S.?” wonders Layne. It is the central question which gives Beale Street its potency; love transcends time, place and skin color, and yet these characters’ circumstances cannot be transcended. Channeled through the universal, the specific cannot be denied. “This story speaks to what happens when that love is under attack. What’s special is we’re having this conversation in a film that is all wrapped up in love. You’re seeing people dealing with these circumstances, and they transcend statistics. These are real human beings, with real families, who love and are loved. People’s brothers, fathers, moms, and sisters.”
She takes a beat. “I can go online right now and find a list of real-life Fonnys and Tishes. People left behind by these injustices. This film may be set in the 1970s, but it’s a story that is still being told today.”