Barry Jenkins: "'People in Korea don't want to watch black characters,' you can't say that anymore"

Salon sits down with writer/director Barry Jenkins and star Stephan James to discuss "If Beale Street Could Talk"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 16, 2018 11:00AM (EST)

KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny in "If Beale Street Could Talk" (Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)
KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny in "If Beale Street Could Talk" (Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)

Academy Award winning writer and director of "Moonlight" Barry Jenkins and actor Stephan James sat down with me in Salon's studio recently to discuss their new film, "If Beale Street Could Talk." Based on the James Baldwin novel about Fonny and Tish, a young black couple living and loving in New York in the 1970s, and how their families connected when Fonny is wrongfully imprisoned, "If Beale Street Could Talk" has serious buzz heading into Oscar campaign season, having already picked up a number of critics' awards and several Golden Globe nominations, including for Best Picture — Drama. The film opened in Los Angeles and New York this weekend and goes into wide release on Christmas Day.

During our wide-ranging conversation, Jenkins and James and I discussed how Hollywood's cash-based objections to films with black casts have been obliterated over the last couple of years, the genius of James Baldwin, the influence of Kalief Browder's tragic story on James' performance, and the surprising way he got cast in his breakout role as John Lewis in Ava DuVernay's "Selma."

It's great to see Baldwin getting the respect he deserves on the screen. "I Am Not Your Negro" is amazing, but this is his first novel ... you bought the rights to that?

Barry Jenkins: I engaged with the James Baldwin estate I guess like five years ago, and just started slowly building a relationship to get to the point where they could trust me with his legacy.

So, how'd the whole project come about? How'd you pick that particular [story]?

Jenkins: You know, it's interesting, it's one of those things where I didn't pick it, it kinda picked me. You know, a friend of mine who works in film, she's a fine artist, she sent me the book and said, "Yo, I think you should read 'If Beale Street Could Talk,' I know you love Baldwin but I've never heard you talk about it. And I think there's a film in there, I think you'd be the perfect person for it." This is before "Moonlight," before any of this other stuff, it was after I'd only made "Medicine for Melancholy." And I trusted her, so I actually took it home and read it, and I was like, "Oh, she's kinda right."

Were you a Baldwin fan, too?

Stephan James: I was a Baldwin fan as an activist and a poet [but] I didn't really know his books, honestly. But after I read "Beale Street" the Barry Jenkins screenplay, then I went back and read the novel.

Was it a difficult process?

Jenkins: I'll talk about the adaptation, the writing process first. Yeah, it was difficult. I mean, Baldwin to me has always been like Mount Rushmore, you know?

Of blackness, of activism, of manhood, just of humanity, you know? So for me, as a young person, to be like, "Oh, I'm gonna take this dude's work and put it in my own voice," you know, that was a big hurdle to get over, man. I had to really convince myself that I could actually be the authorial voice of the film.

But then it feels timely, because it's like, this is what happens: You know when certain cops feel like they have an issue with you, it's very easy to go to jail for something that you didn't do.

James: Yeah, I mean, we can speak to that.

Jenkins: Yeah, just unfortunately timely, if anything. You know?

James: But that's part of the gift of James Baldwin, he's so timeless in his language, like Shakespearean in a way. His themes just live forever.

Jenkins: Unfortunately, as you may see it. But yeah, I mean that's part of the reason why I wanted to be apart of telling this story, because I realize that so much of it resonated so heavily today for me and so many other young men, you know, families in general across this country.

'Cause it's a love story, and it's full of loveAnd you feel that love, but we don't get to just love freely, we have to love in a world where these things happen.

Jenkins: I think one of the things that Mr. Baldwin was getting at when he wrote the novel was that very idea, you know?

I sometimes say you could title this book "The Lives and Souls of Black Folk" and it would still be the same book. I think a part of that was acknowledging that yeah, the history of our experience in this country from the very beginning has always been rooted in some way in despair and torture, disenfranchisement. But, there's aways been joy, there's always been love. We built families, built communities, and almost that community, that family that love is kinda what has allowed us, is what has given us the strength to sustain and to weather all these storms, you know? So for like, what I loved about this book is those two things went so organically hand in hand that you, not that you can't have the one without the other 'cause I'd love to have the love and the joy in the family without the systemic injustice and the despair, but in a certain way the beauty and the tragedies of the story, they do go hand in hand in this case.

[To James] You had to be able to play Fonny, who was deeply in love . . .  and who was sitting in a box.

James: Right.

How do you prepare for something like that?

James: How do you prepare for something like that, right?

What do you draw from?

James: I understood that there was a super high that I was gonna get to, and there was this tumultuous sort of really, really dark place that I was gonna have to go through, as well. And for me, honestly, my biggest inspiration in playing Fonny was Kalief Browder. And just, I really fell in love with his story even before I had heard about this film, and I sort of just dove in to what it meant to be a young man today, who had been wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. Petty theft of a backpack. And then spent two and a half years in solitary confinement. And just thinking about what that would do to a grown man, much less a 16 year old boy.

And it really tore me to pieces at times, it was hard for me to look at his face, while describing some of his experiences in there. You know, me wrestling with just understanding the idea that I'm vulnerable to a situation like this, as well. So I feel like I took it personally, and to me, I just took this opportunity to sorta just be a voice for so many voiceless young men across this country. You know, when you look at African American or Latino young men who are victims of a system that is supposed to be working for you, but definitely doesn't.

The scary part about it, and what makes your film so relevant is it's happening to so many people. Even though Kalief Browder's story was able to get out there, we know the end result was still horrible, and we know there's a lot of people who has his experience, who's going through it right now-

Jenkins: We're never gonna hear about it.

James: Never, ever.

But I think what you guys are doing and how your project is formatted is gonna give a whole lot of people who don't really understand that reality a chance to be able to see, like wow, we're dealing with human beings. We're dealing with people who fall in love.

Jenkins: Yeah, I mean at least to me that's what art is all about, you know? It's what cinema is all about, for sure, this empathy engine. Which not only, you say the word empathy, it's like, "Oh, I need to feel bad for that character." No, you need to understand the situation, and you need to understand what people like this are going through. And you need to be able to take this from the screen, and as you said, Kalief Browder is one horrific example that actually got out with visibility in 2014, 2015, 2016. Can you imagine in 1974? Like how prevalent this was?

Unimaginable, you know? And even today, how many more Kalief Browders are out there, it's true.

So the two families in Beale Street, were very different from each other, but then different from the families in "Moonlight".

Jenkins: Yeah, it was one of those things where I think the experience of black folks in America is often presented as a monolith, or in very narrow terms. And I think for me, especially working on the two films at the same time, essentially, it was clear to me how different the two families were, and yet at the core, it's still like basically two mothers were trying to do whatever they can to protect their children.


Jenkins: And fathers in a certain way, if you count Mahershala as a father in "Moonlight," and then you got Colman and Michael Beach in "Beale Street." What I love about "Beale Street," though, is then you have these two families sitting in a room, and even within them, they are so damn different.

It's crazy, you see the whole spectrum, you know, of experiences. One of the things I love about what I get to do.

So as black people do you feel like sometimes we get put in a box too much on how we look?

James: Yeah, I mean 100,000 percent, I think that goes without saying. You know, our fight and our struggle is always different, but that's as it is in any aspect of life.

But particularly, you know, of course in the arts, I feel like maybe there's been some progress made, especially when you look at television.

But yeah, that's part of the struggle for actors, even the most famous black actors, I think, they have that sort of a struggle in, you know, wanting to tell sort of colorless roles, and be colorless in their character choices. But it's a sort of a catch-22, because telling our stories means so much and wanting to be a part of setting an example, or making a statement. So you know, you also gotta balance that as an artist. It's like, yeah I'm an actor, or I'm a black actor, but I'm also just an actor. And I want to tell a whole bunch of different stories.

You want to be able to tell the stories that you want to tell, you don't want to feel like you have to fit in to some type of box.

James: Exactly, yeah.

Jenkins: What I was gonna say was, I think over the last five, six, seven years that box has just expanded so much, then we look at what people like Ava [DuVernay], and Ryan [Coogler] are doing, it's just ... Terrence Nance, [his success] would not have existed like seven, eight years ago. I frame it that way because when I made my first feature, "Medicine for Melancholy," that entered a whole different version of Hollywood than the one that exists now. But I think it's interesting, I'm always careful to be cognizant that the version of Hollywood we have right now didn't just happen. It was created by people like Ava and Ryan taking control of their careers, and the images that we're putting forth.

So I do like to think of change as being a direction, not a destination.

But it's been too many times where we go, "Oh, and we had "Medicine for Melancholy," we had "Moonlight," so we good".

Hollywood sees it and they say, "Wow, OK, so this isn't the type of film that we would normally try to back and get behind, but we did and it's lucrative, and it's awarded, so that we can go forward and we can do more."

'Cause we gotta think about that side of it, too.

Jenkins: I mean, theoretically ... but I think it's also, what it does that I'm more impressed with, or what I'm more moved by, is it empowered the filmmakers to go, "Yo, I got a movie that I can make for $2 million, blah blah blah. And here's my production plan, blah, blah, blah." And I can use "Moonlight" as an example, do this, this, and that. This will be rewarded.

We live in a world right now where there was a movie with like a 90 percent black cast that grossed $8.9 billion dollars — I'm way inflating shit . . . I think it's like $1.7 billion dollars.

But you can't deny that. 'Cause again, I mean, not that Hollywood is colorblind, or that the only color Hollywood sees is green, but once you see that green, you know, then you can't push this myth that people in France don't want to watch black characters.

"People in Korea don't want to watch black characters," you can't say that anymore.

I mean, it happens across the art world, so it's good that you guys are leading a renaissance, because even as a black writer, like, I asked my friend to name his top five favorite black male authors who write fiction, and he was stuck. He's a voracious reader, you know what I'm saying?

Jenkins: Wow.

Because if we're not selling our personal stories, if we're not writing about stuff like activism, whiteness or something— 

Jenkins: Yeah.

James: Exactly.

You know, I can't just come in and write about, "I was on the cabin with my dog.", a novel about my dog and a cabin, how I learned, how I taught him — you know what I'm saying? — how to make pancakes or something. But I can't write that, because I gotta tell that story.

Jenkins: I mean, it's provocative, you know? It's just because there's been so many stories that still remain to be told, and I feel like we all kinda feel this responsibility. It's like, yeah, I would love to write about the movie about the dogs in the cabin, you know, with his best friend. But —

I can't write that book. I don't want to sit in a cabin with a dog at all.

Jenkins: But, it would be cool to be like, you know what I'm gonna just take a month and I'm gonna try.


James: Yeah, absolutely.

Jenkins: And then if this shit turns out well, then this is where the rubber meets the road, then I'm gonna go to my publisher and be like, "Yo, I wrote this thing." And nine times out of ten the publisher's gonna go, "But nobody wants to read that book from you."

James: Yeah, they don't want to hear it from you.

Jenkins: And then you gotta go self publish, right?

That's what you gotta do, you gotta go DIY, get $15,000, make your first feature, you know?

So, what was it like working with Barry? Did you fall in love in real life, or just for the camera?

James: He put me through it, man, he did. But honestly, it was everything. I was a fan of Barry Jenkins, you know I'd seen "Medicine for Melancholy", obviously saw "Moonlight", and I was like ... I was in love with his filmmaking, seriously, I was. So for me, like the fact that this film had come out of nowhere, it seemed like something I was like putting into the earth, like I was very sure that I was gonna work with him, I didn't know when it was gonna be.

And then he held this [inaudible 00:13:05], so then it's just like, wow. And then this character, Fonny, who I like, I looked up his name and then I looked up my name, and I though James, Fonny ... like I need to convince this guy that it's me, you know? I asked Barry if he would have lunch with me in L.A., and we sat down, and we talked about it, he sort of explained his vision for the film —

Jenkins: I want to be real, James had played John Lewis and Jesse Owens, and I though, I don't know if this cat is Fonny. And in the book, Fonny's written to be specifically light skinned, and so I wanted to honor everything about the text. I wanted to bring that aspect of colorism into the book. We did it a little bit by making, you know, we casted Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Beach as his parents, that the daughters could be a little bit lighter skinned. But it was a thing, man. And also-

Terrence Howard to play Fonny.

Jenkins: If we could take Terrence Howard back 15 years ago, yeah.

James: Yeah, you got me, man. Damn.

Jenkins: I love you, man. Seriously I love you.

James: That's crazy, wow.

No but, that just goes to show like, that's craft, that's commitment. You know, you pulled it off.

Jenkins: What I love about working with James, is James's very responsible, diligent, always prepared, but also he's flexible. So, there's so many moments in the film where I'd be on set, and I would just see something, and I'd be like, "Bro, we gotta role with this." And he would just like, fold himself in. He'd be like, "Alright, cool. Let's do it."

Jenkins: At times we'd go off book, or I'd see something across the street, "Lets go over there and do this." And he would go and do it, but still keep this ... there's a lot of raw emotion in the text that's, you know, buried beneath the surface. Even with the production being all over the place, if I wanted to go off on a tangent, he would go off on a tangent, but bring all that drama, all that emotion, all the stuff within the character with him. So, good job, my friend.

The way you make films is perfect for you to pick up a book like that, you know, because you recognize the emotion that comes from the text.

A lot of filmmakers miss that. So you always get the arguments about the book, or the film, or the book, or the film, but it seems like you really paid attention to that and tried to capture it. And that might've been something that, like a learning process for both of you guys?

Jenkins: I mean, this was interesting, you know. I adore James Baldwin's work, I admire the man, so there was this idea in my head that the best way through was gonna be to preserve as much of the book as possible. So what I said to the actors was, "Look, if it takes 20 hours to read the book, two hours to watch the films, there's no way we can get everything in it."

But, if you see something in the book that you love, put that in the performance. Even though that scenes not in the film, it happened, you know? And I think all the actors felt really empowered in that way.

Yeah, I think it's so important just be able to highlight his work, you know ... I feel like, you think if James Baldwin was alive he would be in film today?

Jenkins: I think so, I mean I think he might be writing about films, I don't know that he'd be writing films. Though I know he did write a few screenplays. The thing I was wondering, you know you make a film as an audience, and with "Moonlight" the main audience to me was Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the source material and who the main character's based on, in this it was James Baldwin and his sister Gloria Karefa-Smart. So, what I've been wondering is what would he think of the film? But then-

He would like it.

Jenkins: I think so, too, because we were at the Apollo for the premiere, and at that screening the scene with the two families just like, it just popped. All around the room people like, literally, rolling in the aisles. And I was like, "That's what he intended."

And I think, you know, what you're doing with this film, and obviously from the success of "Moonlight", you can make the films that you want to makeSo you'll be able to like, create and work on whatever you want to work on.

Jenkins: Hope so.

James: That says a lot about him that he's making films like this, though. You know, I like to say that these films are sort of revolutionary in a way. You know, you look at something like "Moonlight", like queer black love in that way, the fact that Barry Jenkins is willing to put his all behind a story like that . . . and put it to the forefront so people can see what that looks like. And the same thing goes for "Beal Street", so people can see what black love looks like, to be like a fly on the wall and in the living room for example, or in some of those prison scenes. I don't know, it's just allowing you to see a side of us that we really haven't been shown, that people haven't allowed us to see. And the fact that he coulda made anything he wanted after "Moonlight," but he went and decided to do "Beale Street," that says a lot about him.

Jenkins: All this is, is I recognize that James Baldwin is a damn genius, you know? That's all this is.

James: That too.

But I think something that I would like both of you guys to touch on is the idea of how you get to this point, because you know ... when people don't know your body of work, when they don't know your struggle, when they don't know the first film you played on, or how you started acting, or you know, where you were at 15 years ago, chasing this dream.

They see these things and they say, "Oh, wow these guys came out of nowhere with this.” 

"I heard about Barry Jenkins two years ago."

But I think if you guys could talk to the process of what it takes to be able to get to the level where you can create what you want to create.

James: Yeah, I mean if I just speak for myself, I think it's just like putting one foot in front of the other, you know what I'm saying, and taking it day by day. So that every project is like a battle, and it's a uphill sorta climb. And once you do it, once you accomplish, once you told the story you want to tell, you're hoping that that will help lead you to the next one. So it's about putting one foot in front of the other and doing things that mean something to you, and hopefully it'll speak to the right people and the right people will recognize you.

James: It may not be everybody, but the right people will recognize you and Barry can speak to this, 'cause he had like a seven or eight lull after "Medicine" before going to make "Moonlight". So you always recognize that even though people aren't seeing or talking about it, hopefully the right people are seeing it, and knowing about it, and knowing you. And you're keeping the right relationships intact, so you're able to leave for seven, eight years and then go make-

Jenkins: Let me jump on that. I wasn't that I left for seven or eight years, I had to get shit done

James: Yeah. But there's a process in that.

Jenkins: No, but what I love about what you said was, I think you have to start out by like, "I'm gonna make the best work I can, and I'm just gonna put it out there." And eventually, somebody will find it. And eventually it will find the people who at some point will find me and we will link up, and we will go forth together.

James: Yeah, 100 percent.

Jenkins: Case in point. So "12 O'Clock Boys" about dirt bikes in Baltimore, I just happened to do a pass on the script. But that all happened before "Moonlight", and it happened because I had made "Medicine for Melancholy", and Clarence Hammond at Overbrook knew about "Medicine" and had heard I had the script from "Moonlight", read the script, and just said, "Hey, have you seen this documentary "12 O'Clock Boys"? I was like yeah, we had a quick talk about it. Boom, that's a job.

Right. It's a job, yeah.

Jenkins: It's a job, and it's something that I care about, but this ... "Medicine" is a movie I made for 12, 15 thousand dollars, eight years ago at this point. I have no idea who's seen it.

So you gotta make things in good faith, and not be so pressed about those things popping. Because if you put something good into the world, eventually other folks will recognize —

James: They'll find it.

Jenkins: Exactly.

James: And just to piggyback on that, like, literally I did this film called "When the Game Stands Tall," and I'm not in the film for a whole lot, I'm probably in it for like a half hour. 'Cause my character dies, and in the trailer, my character's literally in the trailer for less than two seconds, I kid you not.

But, this turns into ... David Oyelowo's in the theater, who played Dr. King in "Selma". He's in the theater and he takes his kids to the movie theaters, and right before the movie there's a trailer of "When the Game Stands Tall", and my face is in it for two seconds.

And he literally remembered me and said, "Wow, that kid is something." Like from the trailer.

And told Ava DuVerney the minute he left —

Jenkins: That's how you got "Selma"?

James: I swear to God. Told Ava DuVernay the minute he left the theater. It's crazy, you never know who's watching your work.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins