How Barry Jenkins convinced himself he could adapt James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins and actor Stephan James joined “Salon Talks” to discuss their newest film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” opening in New York and Los Angeles on December 14 and nationwide on Christmas Day.
In Jenkins’ first feature film since his Oscar winner “Moonlight,” the writer-director opened up about the process of adapting James Baldwin’s 1970s novel that centers on a black couple’s love, derailed by an unjust incarceration.
“The adaption was difficult,” Jenkins told SalonTV’s D. Watkins. “Baldwin, to me, has always been on the Mount Rushmore, of blackness, of activism, of manhood and humanity. For me as a young person taking this dude's work and putting it in my own voice was a big hurdle to get over. I really had to convince myself that I can be the authorial voice of the film.”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” follows Fonny, played by Stephan James and Tish, played by KiKi Layne, their relationship, and how their dreams of building a life together are snatched away by a racist police officer. Ultimately, their families step in after Fonny is wrongfully imprisoned, but is it enough? Jenkins addressed the lessons he learned while directing and the challenges that come with adapting Baldwin.
“I adore James Baldwin’s work and I admire the man, so there was this idea that the best way through was to preserve as much of the book as possible,” Jenkins said. “I said to the actors it takes 20 hours to read the book and two hours to watch the film, so there’s no way we can get everything, but if you see something in the book you love, put that in the performance.”
The film, James points out, is also, “unfortunately timely,” he shared with Salon, while referencing how the film speaks to the ills of our current criminal justice system. “That’s part of the gift of James Baldwin. His language is Shakespearean in a way. His themes live forever.”
Watch the episode above to hear more about how Jenkins is working to put authentic black stories on screen, what he thinks of Hollywood’s current state, and why James was not the obvious choice for the lead role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”