For the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Angela Flournoy speaks to Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award winning Moonlight, about his newest film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk.
In addition to this new film’s being the much-anticipated follow-up to “Moonlight,” it is also the first big-screen English-language film adaptation of a novel by [James] Baldwin, a writer whose works are closely guarded by his estate. Much of the country, owing to our current political reality and Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” has recently become better acquainted with a truth black readers grasped long ago: James Baldwin was right about everything. Jenkins began his adaptation of Baldwin’s fifth novel back in 2013, writing a faithful screen version of the 1974 book, in which a pregnant 19-year-old woman named Tish works, alongside her family, to prove the innocence of her child’s jailed father, a young sculptor. This being Baldwin, of course, there’s more to it: a meditation on the radical implications of declaring yourself an artist while black, on what it means to be poor in New York, on the power and limitations of romantic and filial love.
Flournoy considers how Jenkins grew up, what is indelible about his body of work, and why his films’ quietest moments are so arresting:
I’ve spent my life loving black men, and I understand black masculinity to be malleable, its fabled rigidity overblown. After work, in the dark, I’ve heard whispered secrets, the wanderings of restless minds. And yet all of my moviegoing life I’d never seen this quotidian vulnerability so accurately rendered in film — not without a wink, a glance away, some posturing that distances — until I saw Jenkins’s “Moonlight.” An adult son tries to keep emotional distance from his mother, a recovering crack-cocaine addict, and cannot; tears stream down his face instead. A drug dealer confirms his profession to a boy (the same son, but younger), thereby admitting to playing a part in what holds the mother captive; the boy leaves, and the drug dealer (a father figure, not a monster) stares straight ahead, defeated. In “Beale Street,” we watch the main character, Fonny, listen to his friend Daniel describe the psychological horror of prison. Daniel begins the conversation nonchalant, swigging a beer, and ends it with his shoulders stooped forward, the light drained from his eyes. His honesty and helpless frustration is so familiar from my actual life that it is nearly too much to bear — a perfect moment of cinema.
Jenkins enjoys moments when his actors make direct eye contact with the camera. He and Laxton are in agreement on the power of this sustained looking, how holding the camera on an actor can bring out a host of emotions in the viewer. “If you’re in a dark theater with 300 people sitting next to you,” Laxton said, “and you have someone looking at you from a big screen, I think it does something to you as an audience member.” Alfred Hitchcock employed these sorts of shots, as did Jonathan Demme (who can forget Hannibal Lecter’s stare?), but unlike those filmmakers, Jenkins and Laxton rarely shoot theirs during moments of great emotional agitation. Instead they catch their characters at ease, quiet. “Barry captures silence in a way that we don’t see much, and we especially don’t see that much in the African-American film experience,” Mahershala Ali, who won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for playing the drug-dealer-cum-father-figure in “Moonlight,” told me. “You usually don’t see black people holding peace and occupying silence, having to fill those voids in that way.”
Jenkins shoots these moments intuitively, waiting until he feels something. “I’m not directing them,” he says. “They are just giving me this thing. And sometimes you can look at an actor and see, Oh, there’s the soul.” And if they’re comfortable enough, he says, they can look directly into the camera without losing that soul. “Instead they’re going to give it to the audience.” KiKi Layne, whose starring role as Tish in “Beale Street” marks her first foray into film from theater, described it as looking into a black hole: “I think at one point I told him that ‘Man, this feels so strange’ and he was like, ‘I know, but I need it, I need it.’ ” The actors don’t know where these shots will wind up in the film, and neither, necessarily, does Jenkins, at the time. Later, though, the emotions viewers read on the actors’ faces — a close-up of Fonny near the end of the film goes from anxious and unsure to settled — feel made for the precise moment when they appear on screen.
These looks don’t quite break the fourth wall, because the actors are not regarding the audience. In “Beale Street,” they’re most often gazing at someone they love. For nonblack audience members, it might be the first time they’ve had a black person direct such a gaze their way; Jenkins offers a glimpse at a world previously hidden to them. For a black viewer, there’s more likely a kind of recognition: I know that face, although I have never seen this actor before. Or, if the actor is one you’re familiar with, it can go the opposite direction, letting you see the person anew. Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother in the film, has played a mother or wife as many times as I have fingers, over decades. But who was this woman on the screen, staring at her reflection in a mirror, summoning her courage, while also staring at me? Typecasting actors isn’t simply about having them play a role they have played before; it’s about locking them into the same aesthetic representation of that role. “He knows that it’s not just his film,” King told me. “He can’t do this without the talent of other people, and he allows those talents to shine.”