The Moonlight director sits down to pick apart his wonderful James Baldwin adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk.
When you’ve been through the mill of Academy Awards press lobbying, a once-open and outspoken artist can become cagey and distant. Journalists suddenly become attack dogs with an ulterior motive, and one tiny slip-up can cause the entire house of cards to tumble. Not so with Barry Jenkins, winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar for his ambient Florida-set triptych, Moonlight, which is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. When it comes to picking apart the finer points of art – his art, and art made by others – he’s ready to dive in deep.
We first encountered Jenkins at the 2009 London Film Festival, where his delightful debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, played, and he was also involved in a panel discussion which explored the question What is Indie Cinema? His latest work is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, about a young black woman who discovers she’s pregnant soon after her boyfriend is framed for rape by a racist cop he dared to stand up to.
All three of his films offer a bracing counter-narrative to the stories of black Americans we so often see depicted on screen, particularly those by white directors. We spoke about how closely his film work dovetails with the novels and essay work of James Baldwin, the essential, visual aspects of cinema, and whether there’s an element of activism to his work.
LWLies: Can you describe your first encounter with the work of James Baldwin?
Jenkins: I was going through a break up. The woman breaking up with me at the time, as a way of illustrating to me that I needed to grow as a person and as a man, recommended that I read Baldwin. For me it was ‘Giovanni’s Room’ and ‘The Fire Next Time’. It was just shocking. I had never knowingly read the work of a queer author. I had certainly never read the work of a black queer author. To read ‘Giovanni’s Room’, which is a black gay man writing about a white gay bi man in Paris – that was insane. But it opened up my worldview. And it was lovely to research Baldwin and realise that this guy came from the same place I did. This is how big my voice can be. Or how wide-ranging my experience can be.
When you were reading those books, did you already have that filmmaker mindset?
No. Not at all. This happened just before I got into film school. And I’m glad it happened that way. Maybe if I’d been at film school for three years, graduated and then read Baldwin, I would’ve tried to adapt ‘Giovanni’s Room’ before I made Medicine for Melancholy. Which would’ve been a fucking disaster. I was so moved by the writing, it never occurred to me to take my voice and align it with his. This was something that existed outside my own artistic pursuits. It was much more about me being a certain way. It was about five years after Medicine, and I had this love for Baldwin, and I thought, ‘Oh, dummy, you should take this thing you do and this man you admire so much and put them together.’
If you, for whatever reason, weren’t able to make Beale St, would you have gone to another novel?
If I’d gone to the estate and they’d said I couldn’t do ‘Beale St’, then I would’ve tried to adapt ‘Giovanni’s Room’. That’s my favourite Baldwin novel – visually, it’s the one that activates me the most despite the fact that it’s a chamber piece. But I was already working on Moonlight. Not that it’s the same thing, but there’s definitely some electric spiritual current shared between them. When I was touring with Moonlight, I suddenly realised that I had referenced the first two Baldwin books I had ever read. There you go. Maybe I would’ve decided on something else completely.
[In this section of the interview we read out three archive quotations relating to the novel ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and asked for Jenkins’ response to each.]
1. “‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is Baldwin’s prison parable – a fictionalisation of his prison concerns during the 1968-69 period and the natural illustration and culmination of his long meditation on psychological emotion, and intellectual imprisonment.” David Leeming, ‘James Baldwin: A Biography’
I would certainly agree with that description. The feeling of reading this book for the first time and deciding I wanted to adapt it was the combination of this essayistic, almost protest novel version of Baldwin, and this very lush, sensual and romantic version of Baldwin. And I think that duality was something I thought would be really challenging, visually. The novel can be so moving. That, to me, is what the book feels like.
2. “For every novel that I write, I am afraid. I try something, which makes me doubt my capabilities as a writer. I know also that I have been lucky.” Guy Le Clec’h, ‘James Baldwin à visage découvert’. Le Figaro Littéraire
It is something I relate to, but not when I’m embarking on a project. Everything is so fresh and new. There’s so much possibility. It’s as the movie is starting to cohere – sometimes during production, oftentimes in post-production – that this feeling of fear starts to creep in. But with Baldwin, you have to unpack it a bit: he grew up in a time when being himself was dangerous in a certain way. For him to publish ‘Giovanni’s Room’, of course he must have been terrified.
In the same way with Moonlight, making that film, I was kind of like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ This is not going to end well. And yet, if I’m not feeling that way, then I’m probably not pushing myself. I don’t mean physically, as in, ‘Oh, this movie is so demanding’. Just as in, speaking about things that are uncomfortable to speak about, and showing things, hopefully truths, that are difficult to digest. I think that’s the fear he’s talking about. Especially this writer as, holy shit, all he did was tell the truth. Some very bitter, ugly truths, especially in this novel.
3. “If the eye is indeed the light to the soul, then James Baldwin lays many of his characters bare in ‘If Beale St Could Talk’ . The people in the novel, by looking at each other – not just with casual glances, but with intense eye contact – reveal many of their subconscious thoughts and feelings. On a superficial level, they use eye contact to fight battles that might require guns, knives and other more physical weapons.” Trudier Harris, The Eye as Weapon in If Beale Street Could Talk, MELUS, Volume 5, Issue 3, 1 September 1978
I mean, that’s fucking wonderful. I wish that was about the movie and not the book. In a certain way, the quote doesn’t shock me. I do think Baldwin, in drawing these families in the way that he does, develops a means of encouraging the audience to look them in the eye. He wants the audience to feel their experience. It’s no secret that Baldwin was somebody who loved cinema. My thesis is that cinema is channelled through the eyes.
The quote doesn’t surprise me, and it really reflects something that came from adapting the book for the screen. James [Laxton, cinematographer] started doing these direct-to-camera shots in Moonlight, and it just felt like that aesthetic would apply to Beale Street. Intellectually, I’d never put it together in quite this clear a language. But thinking of the film now, it makes absolute sense. That is a lovely quote.
LWLies: There’s an interesting section in Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, where James Baldwin is talks about the film The Defiant Ones, In which follows a white convict and a black convict who are chained together. He says that white and black audiences would see a different film from one another. Do you feel that there are different experiences to be had from the films you make?
Hmm, that’s a loaded question bruh! I’m going to cheat and say there are different experiences to be had from any film. What you bring into the cinema will affect your relationship with what’s on the screen. Regarding your Defiant Ones example, there are all these direct-to-camera shots in Moonlight and Beale Street, and a writer for the New York Times mentioned them in a profile of me and the film. Her observation about the direct-to-camera shots was shocking, because I had never considered it. She framed it in a way that, for a white audience member sitting in the cinema, when Fonny is looking directly at the camera, which is directly at the audience, it might be the first time they’ve every made eye contact in this way and for this amount of time. Then she said that, if you’re a person of colour, you’re probably seeing someone you know.
I think the step beyond that relates to something Arthur Jaffe says when he speaks about cinema, which is that people of colour have been looking into the eyes of white people forever. Throughout the history of arts and letters. And that’s fine. I think they understand more about the experience of your everyday white person just from watching sitcoms and movies all these years than they do about me. I make these films in a way that is not concerned with that dynamic. It’s more a contribution to that idea of sharing that we’ve been forced to have, because for so long there was a dearth of material we could see ourselves in. You had to see folks like you, forever. And now you guys get to come into the cinema and see folks like me.
Now, if I’d made the work with the dynamic implicit in my intentions, I think the work would suffer. Then I’m doing you a disservice. I’m showing you what I think you need to see as opposed to making the material the way I feel it should be made. It’s about creating a shared experience. And I hope that’s what all the white people have been doing with all the white characters throughout the history of the world. They haven’t been thinking about me. But when I go and watch the movie, I’m allowed access to that experience.
When you’re writing about film, it’s sometimes easy to take these formal elements for granted. But there’s so much to be discovered from considering the intentions behind shots rather than the shots themselves.
The formal elements of film can’t be taken for granted. The aesthetics can’t be taken for granted. There’s a critic called Miriam Bale, who’s also a friend, and she often says that the aesthetic is political. You can’t separate the aesthetics from the politics. Otherwise they’re just stories. And there’s a better format for stories than cinema. There just is. It’s literature. You can get into the interior lives of characters. There are no limitations on the imagination. But it’s not cinema. In cinema, the story is one thing and the aesthetics are this whole other thing. These two things work hand in hand, but the aesthetics aren’t there just to serve the story. They have a point of their own. They are both the tool and the method. They are the metaphor. Cinema is not just telling damn stories.
If the aesthetic is always political, does that make you an artist and an activist?
No, I don’t see myself as an activist. There’s a level of dedication and sacrifice in activism that I can’t accept. Especially because the works I’m most known for are adaptations. Tarell Alvin McCraney is an activist. James Baldwin is an activist. I’m just a guy who makes things. But I’m thankful that the things I’ve made mean something in the world at large.
Maybe you’re an activist by proxy?
Exactly. But seriously, no, I’m not. I thought you were going to go in a different direction with that artist question. You mentioned the terms artist and activist. There’s that piece near the end of Beale Street where Fonny says, ‘I’m an artisan. I never liked the word artist. Sure as fuck don’t know what it means.’ I feel the same way.
How do you differentiate?
Part of that is wrapped up in what I said in my Oscars speech: growing up in a way where I didn’t consider myself becoming an artist. I didn’t know the way I came into filmmaking. I didn’t realise how much actual machinery is involved in the making of films. We had a professor who used to refer to filmmakers as ‘blue collar artists’. Which, to me, is just an artisan. If I really unpack it, it’s just about self doubt. It’s funny talking about this in the UK, where class is embedded in your culture. Through a classist prism, the idea of me being an artist is just a step beyond.
As I get older and make more things, it’s a bit of a cop out. And shit, I’m going back to the previous question now, but I made it seem as though only activists bare responsibility, and before that, how the aesthetics are always political. So I think, if I’m really adding everything up, then maybe I am an activist in a certain way. Not by proxy, but in my heart. Fuck, you man. Don’t print that.
If Beale Street Could Talk is released 8 February. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 5 Feb 2019
Intense melancholy and blissful romance mask an undercurrent of political outrage in Barry Jenkins’ rhapsodic take on James Baldwin.
For our first edition of 2019 we dive into Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary adaptation of James Baldwin.