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"It's a film composed of memories" - Interview with Barry Jenkins

An interview with Barry Jenkins about IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Born in 1979, Barry Jenkins grew up in Miami in similar circumstances to MOONLIGHT’s protagonist Chiron. His father abandoned the family, dying when Barry was aged 12. As his mother was addicted to crack cocaine, Barry grew up in the cluttered flat of a different woman. Studying Film at Florida State University, his final project MY JOSEPHINE (2003) was about a muslim couple in a laundrette just after 9/11. His debut feature MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY did not see general release in Germany, but was highly lauded by US critics. Jenkins’ big international break came with MOONLIGHT which won three awards (Best Film, Best Supporting Male Character (Mahershala Ali), Best Adapted Screenplay) at the Academy Awards 2016. In his third feature IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s novel of the same name.

Contains spoilers for BEALE STREET!

INDIEKINO BERLIN: You have said that reading James Baldwin made you realize what it means to be a man, or a Black man, specifically. Could you elaborate on that?

Barry Jenkins: When I discovered James Baldwin, I hadn’t read very much. It was a very new experience for me to see someone depicting black life. It’s interesting: most of the narratives that I was receiving at the time were about really famous Black people. Everybody loves the story of Martin Luther King, everybody knows the story of Jesse Owens. Mr. Baldwin was writing about very everyday people, but in a very dense, rich way. Which to me meant, like, “Oh, Black lives matter!” Someone who grows up like Chiron is worthy of having his interior voice translated, in a very rich way. To me, that was the power of discovering James Baldwin and it’s why I fell in love with his work.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is the second film adaptation of Baldwin’s work after last year’s I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO by Raoul Peck. Do you think there is a reason for this renaissance of James Baldwin’s work?

Yeah, I mean, this book was published 45 years ago and yet, so much of what happens in this film is still very relevant today, is still happening to people today. And so I think what we’re trying to do, especially in America, where they have the slogan “Make America great again,” is going: “Okay, well, what has been happening in America that was so great? When you go back to someone, whether it’s really amazing thinkers like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, who were literally documenting what was happening, just like: “Oh well, this wasn’t actually so great”. And I think that now, because we’re dealing with these issues, people are coming back to voices like Mr. Baldwin.

Why did you choose this particular Baldwin story?

This is not my favorite James Baldwin novel. That would be “Giovanni’s Room”. But this one I love because James Baldwin had a few different voices he wrote with. The two that were most prominent are the essayist, who is most concerned with systemic injustice, American society, and the role which these systems play in disenfranchising the lives and souls of Black folks. But he was also just as obsessed with this other voice, with sensuality, romanticism and personal relationships. I chose this book because I thought these two things were organically fused. Through Tish and Fonny you have these two soulmates, you have this love, this romance, this vital life, but then because of the ordeal that they must go through, you also have systemic injustice.

Despair, suffering, terror have always been a part of Black life in America

There’s a harsh political side to Baldwin and there’s a romantic side. Where do you see yourself?

The book is a lot more bitter and angry than the film is. So I guess I come down on the side of the love, the family, the romance. But I think what you learn as you read this book, is that these things, for Black Americans, are intertwined. You can never possibly live a life in America as a Black person and not be affected by the system, by society. Somehow it always finds a way, no matter who you are. Even if you’re me, a big time Hollywood director. Not big time, scratch that. Even if you’re me, small time Hollywood director, these things still affect you, they become a part of your daily life. And so, there’s no way to separate the one from the other. To me, the thesis of the book was the idea that despair, suffering, terror have always been a part of Black life in America, from the very beginning, going back to slavery. And it has always been life, family, love, community at the heart of BEALE STREET being a place in Memphis, in New Orleans, in L.A., in Harlem. I think, because of that, Mr. Baldwin is saying that this love, this joy, this life is the thing that has somehow allowed Black people to persist and to build communities in America. They go hand in hand. The trick for me was realizing that you can’t think of it as just purely in terms of screen time: “I need a hundred minutes of love and twenty minutes of despair.” It was more like chemistry, where certain elements have a denser property, and so you need less of them. So, when the officer appears, when you see Fonny in prison, those things are so impactful that you don’t need to see as much of them as you do seeing the romance, seeing the family, seeing the love.

How did you approach IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and finding a cinematic equivalent to Tish’s voice in your movie?

Yeah, it was something we were looking for in casting in particular. I knew that the voiceover narration was going to be very important to the success of the piece. But also, the character has to be a girl as well as a woman, depending on where in the narrative it falls. So, for me the biggest thing was to translate Baldwin’s interior voice using the craft elements of filmmaking to translate the voice. But also to understand that the book is told from James Baldwin’s point of view, but the film is from Tish’s point of view. Two very different people. I think in the book sometimes, Mr. Baldwin slips, and he’s meant to be writing from Tish’s perspective, but he’s writing from his own, but I thought in the film, that was not going to serve. It had be all through Tish. So even when Baldwin is doing Baldwin, talking about the world, like in the perfume counter sequence, he is still talking about the world as experienced by a nineteen-year-old black girl. And I think in that way, we were able to solidify the point of view through Tish and still preserve the interior voice. Now, from a craft standpoint, when you’re in a cinema, which is what the movie is designed for, all the dialogue in the film comes from the screen, which is what typically happens in a film, the dialogue is on the front two speakers. But the voiceover in this film comes through every speaker in the room. So now you’re surrounded, immersed essentially, in the voice of Tish through this narration. So there were a few different ways in which we tried to accomplish that task. It was very, very difficult.

This movie has a very special look. How did you develop the visual design?

For us, both MOONLIGHT and IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK are reflections of the main characters’ consciousness. In MOONLIGHT, Chiron is dictating how the film looks and how it feels. BEALE STREET is dictated by Tish. You know, this is a girl who is kind of in purgatory, and she’s remembering both the most vibrant, the most beautiful, the purest moments of her life – her first sexual experience, falling in love, meeting her soulmate – and then also the darkest experiences – seeing her fiancée in prison, the encounter with this cop, all these very dark things. But it’s not grounded in reality, it’s how she’s remembering. It is a film composed of memories. And memories can exist however they wish. For us, that meant having a very saturated, very bright image for Tish, when she is thinking of things in a very pure way, and then a very muted palette with lots of shadows, like when Daniel Carty comes over, that’s very dark, a whole different color palette to the rest of the film. So, it’s all about reflecting the consciousness of the main character.

Are you afraid of shooting sentimental scenes that may seem over the top, or even kitschy?

No, not at all. Especially in this film, because the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl. And this nineteen-year-old girl is remembering what she knows of love. Those memories are almost heightened in a way, especially because her situation is very dark. How kitschy or how sentimental, how beautiful her memories of those things are – it’s almost as if she’s building a doll-house out of her memories. But the reality is that she is living in a hellhole. The contrast between those two things, it’s almost like opera. The Highs had to be quite high, and the Lows had to be quite low. In a way, it was a kind of relief, because the opposite of that is to make something that is just so miserable, so rooted in pain – and we’ve all seen that film, we all know those stories. I think the other way, where Black people’s lives are treated with tenderness, with innocence, I think that one, to me becomes profound, even in its pure mundanity.

They become the men who get fed into this system

The film begins and ends with photographs of Harlem life in the seventies. How did you come across these photos and what made you decide to want to have them in your film?

For us, the visual research on this film was not through cinema, it was through still photography, the works of Gordon Parks and Roy Decarava. A friend of mine had made a documentary on Gordon Parks called A FAMILY PORTRAIT. This was back in 2003, 2004. It was a short documentary, about a photo documentary that Mr. Parks did on the Fontenelle family in Harlem (“A Harlem Family”, Gordon Parks, 1968) for LIFE magazine. There’s a photo in that series called “Ellen, crying”. As I was writing the first draft of the script, which I wrote here in Berlin, actually, I remember coming to the sequence where Tish describes through narration “the children of our age”. And I wanted to show what those children looked like, in a documentary fashion. And so this picture “Ellen, crying” was written into the screenplay and then we found other photos to support it. As you’re making a film, it evolves and I realized, especially after editing the scene in the middle of the film, with Daniel talking about what prison has done to him, I realized quite quickly that these “children of our age” and this one photo series needed to rhyme with what happens to those children. They become the men who get fed into this system. And so in the first three minutes of the film you get the one photo-montage of documentary photos and then right before the end, in the last three minutes your realize the result, the trauma these children are witnessing as they become these men. The first one was planned, the second one was not.

The system is so easily manipulated, that once you’re in it, you’re just in it.

One of the most devastating scenes of the film is the one in which we see the white lawyer, a classic white savior figure and only hope for Tish and her family, crumble before our eyes, just when we expected the film to turn into a procedural. How did you conceive that scene?

To me, the stories we’ve been told, about this dynamic and this world always become a procedural. They’re gonna find the witness, and they’re gonna get Fonny out. But for so many of these young Black women and men, who find themselves in that situation that just doesn’t happen. That’s not the reality. So I think, it’s the audience’s expectation, that this lawyer, who means well, will come in and he will solve everything, because Fonny is innocent. But that’s just not the reality. Stephan James, who plays Fonny based a lot of his performance on this young man named Khalief Browder, whose story was quite prominent in America. There’s a documentary about him. (“Time: The Kalief Browder Story”, six part television documentary, 2017. There are also two interviews with Kalief Browder in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13TH”.) This kid was arrested for stealing a backpack and sent to Riker’s Island, a very notorious jail. He spent three years there just waiting for his trial! And of those he spent two and a half years in solitary confinement, because he told everyone that he was innocent. They called him crazy. Then, when he was released, he committed suicide, because the trauma was so deep in him. Now, if he had accepted a plea, he would have spent maybe a year in Riker’s Island, but then he would have been pleading guilty for something he did not to. This is a true story that happened, like literally five years ago. Can you imagine, what it was like for somebody in 1974, in 1973, when we didn’t have the internet and all these different things? So, for me, that lawyer swooping in to solve all those things – that would have been almost disrespectful to people like Khalief Browder. Khalief Browder is a name we know. I can’t imagine how many names we don’t know, of people who are in the system and have no way of getting out of it. So, no, a lawyer will not swoop in and save the day! The scene where the lawyer himself realizes that it’s not gonna happen, that he just has good intentions, but not enough to solve this problem – it will be on the DVD, but it’s not in the film.

The topic of prison reform and forced plea deals has been subject of a heated discussion in the US for a while, with films like Ava DuVernays “13th” or the popular “Serial” podcast about a court in Michigan. Do you think your film will add an impulse to this debate?

It may and it may not. There are people who see this film and they can’t believe that he took a plea deal. They can’t believe that there are innocent people in jail right now, who accept pleas. I think that’s because they don’t have a solid understanding of how the justice system works in America. The system is so backed up, there aren’t possibly enough judges, enough lawyers to try all these cases. What happens is: If you make us go to trial, to actually try this case, we are really going to punish you. And so everything is incentivized. People are incentivized to take pleas, the lawyers are incentivized to get pleas, the judges are incentivized to give pleas. When they see the film, some people, with this White Savior lawyer, they assume that the right thing always happens. But the system is so easily manipulated and so corrupt, that that is not the case. Case in point: this case spins on a case of sexual assault. So when people write about it, they go: “Fonny is accused of sexual assault”. But he’s not accused of anything. He’s chosen out of a police line-up. He’s placed in a police line-up by a cop who understands he can manipulate the system. The book is even more extreme: He’s the only Black man in the police line-up, which makes him much easier to pick out. Again: the system is so easily manipulated, that once you’re in it, you’re just in it. It just swallows people. There’s a scene in this film, right after the lawyer, where two Black fathers are saying: “I know some hustles, and you know some hustles.” So you have two Black fathers committing crimes to prove the innocence of the Black son, who’s committed no crime. If they get captured for committing those crimes, they are in the system as well. It just feed itself and feeds itself and feeds itself and feeds itself. I do hope that people who watch the film understand how that feeding happens. That’s why instead of Fonny walking out of the courtroom und hugging everybody, we end it with him sitting in prison, visited by his son, whose first experience of Black fatherhood is now linked to the concept of bars. Because that’s a reality many people face.

(Interview: Tom Dorow)