REPUTATION: Barry Jenkins is bringing black love to life on the big screen
BARRY JENKINS is in love – with black love. He might not have publicly said as much, but his films proclaim it. In If Beale Street Could Talk, his first feature film after the best picture Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins is yet again exploring the interaction of love and pain. In doing so and in the way he does, he’s cementing his reputation as a filmmaker who can expertly capture the essence of these powerful themes – and more poignantly how they are experienced through the black lens.
Having chosen to adapt stories where both are inextricably linked, one might wonder whether the director feels it’s possible to document such strong, all-consuming love without the heart-wrenching pain.
He tells Life & Style he believes you can absolutely tell a love story without the struggle, but that we have so many examples of that kind of love.
“I think that in a way love has been robbed of some of its power in recent years because as the story forms have gotten more and more conventional, and therefore more commercial, I think love arrives on screen as though it can exist outside any societal context or any societal circumstance,” he says.
ALL-CONSUMING: KiKi Layne, left, and Stephan James play Tish and Fonny in Barry Jenkins’ new heartwarming masterpiece
Despite being published in 1974, Baldwin’s eponymous novel of which Beale Street is an adaptation, bears to the societal issues around racial injustice, mass incarceration of black men and the grossly unfair nature of the justice system in not just the US – although that’s the focus for Baldwin and as a result Jenkins – but around the world. Fonny (Stephan James) is accused of rape and Tish (KiKi Layne), the love of his life, who spends the majority of the film pregnant with his child and whom he plans to marry, fights for his freedom and their love throughout the dismal ordeal.
“I think for me, it’s not that love can’t exist without pain, but I think in these particular stories that I’ve chosen to tell, love is the thing that allows the characters to withstand and endure through the pain. You have to love through pain, it’s the only way to get through pain,” Jenkins says.
While diversity is Hollywood’s buzzword of the moment and black boundary-pushing films are en vogue, for Jenkins, everything about his work feels authentic. He’s telling these stories and showcasing black people in these lights because for him it’s the natural thing to do.
It’s an example of the consequences of inclusion behind the camera, an area of progress which doesn’t get as much attention but is fundamental in bringing better, more authentic and more intelligent representations of black people into the fold.
Moonlight’s editor Joi McMillon, who returns to the role for Beale Street, became the first black woman to be nominated in the editing category at the Oscars for her work on his 2016 release. But it’s not just professionals that Jenkins is conscious of helping progress.
Jenkins instructs members of the cast during filming
“I grew up in an exclusively black neighbourhood and I remember making Moonlight and the children in Liberty City, the neighbourhood where I grew up in, seeing me directing, and I could see their eyes opening and expanding what they think is possible for a young man who grows up in the world that we grew up in,” he says.
Jenkins’ work is having a profound effect on black people without aspirations to enter film as well. Audiences’ eyes are widening to consume every inch of his sensitive and considered depictions of them. The striking images of black characters loving one another are unapologetic in their proclamations that black love matters – and not just in its romantic form, but in a familial sense too. It’s something we know, but it often seems that the mainstream film and television industry doesn’t.
Like in Moonlight, black skin is lit to perfection, showcased in all its glory. So too is black hair. Jenkins’ art isn’t concerned with making blackness palatable for commercial gain and it shows.
Many black women and girls will identify with the texture of Tish’s afro, a tight coily, kinky crown. A rare sight that’s resonating with many.
“KiKi [Layne] is a beautiful young woman and her hair in its natural state is absolutely gorgeous, and so to me, in embodying Tish, I wanted KiKi to bring as full a version of herself as possible and that was embracing the very beautiful nature of her hair.
AFRO: Tish’s natural hair was important to Jenkins
“I never imagined that that would be something that thematically was very important to an audience, but that’s what I love about creating work – it’s like a message in a bottle. You do the best job you can and send it off,” Jenkins says.
Black women, who Jenkins has listened to during the collaborative process of bringing Beale Street to the big screen, have also provided the director with insights into the messages his work communicates.
He says: “There are younger and older black women who have seen this film who have made this comment to me about the power of seeing someone look like KiKi and with KiKi’s hair, treated in the way that we treat that character in this film, which is she is tender, she’s beautiful she is gorgeous, she is worthy of love and the worship of her lover.
“It’s one of those things that you know, that’s why I’m glad to be a filmmaker.”
These things considered, I put to Jenkins that as such, his work is viewed by some as revolutionary. Does he consider himself a revolutionary or his art?
“No – absolutely not,” he tells me emphatically.
“I think I’m just trying to again, especially with this film and with Moonlight, tell the story at the pace that the main character dictates,” he adds.
BLACK LOVE: Regina King and Colman Domingo play Tish’s parents
One of the reasons Jenkins is keen to distance himself from the revolutionary label, one that can apply even as he adapts the work of others, is his recognition of those who paved the way before him. He cites Love Jones by Theodore Witcher as the first film he remembers seeing depict black love.
“That to me was just, like, earth-shattering, like, mind-blowing. I was like, ‘What is this? Black people read poetry and ride motorcycles and make omelettes? Like, what the hell is going on?’ And it was just so vibrant, both literally what happened between Nia Long and Larenz Tate’s characters in that film, but also aesthetically the way Ted Witcher was relaying, this is what black love looks and feels like.
“I was like, ‘Yo, this is revolutionary’, and so for you to say that about my work is the greatest compliment because I know what it feels like to have that feeling,” he says.
To the surprise of critics, and it appears to be almost everyone who has seen Beale Street, the film was snubbed by the Academy. It only received three nominations, none of which were for best picture or best director.
“I’m never making these films with the idea of engendering any kind of result, especially awards related,” he says. “And with Moonlight I think one of the reasons why the film did so well – and this is me speaking and my own personal relationship to the film – is because that wasn’t a consideration and we just tried to make a very uncompromised work of art, which I think we did, and somehow it just ended up in the centre of that conversations”.
Jenkins, although happy that the work of some of those involved in the film has been acknowledged [Regina King received a Golden Globe for best supporting actress and has been nominated for an Oscar], is not at all terribly concerned with awards hype – having been burnt in a way once before.
“The same way y’all feel about Beale Street I feel the same way about other people’s work. So we all stan in a certain way. “I think we all need to be very clear that these awards don’t change the shape of the work.
“And as someone who’s won best picture with a previous film, I think Moonlight hopefully will be viewed the same way whether it won best picture or not – and I know what that feels like because at one point it didn’t win best picture and then it did.”
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas now.
Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.