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Interview: Barry Jenkins Talks ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, Resiliency, Diversity in Film & More at TIFF 2018

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins screened both of his films Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight at the Toronto International Film Festival. So, it was no surprise when it was announced that Jenkins would be bringing the amazing If Beale Street Could Talk to TIFF this year, where it was the runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice award.

If Beale Street Could Talk is based on the book of the same name by the iconic, James Baldwin and is a love story that follows the relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Geeks of Color had the pleasure of speaking with Jenkins to discuss his latest film, the wonderful cast and diversity in film.

Check out the interview below:

If Beale Street Could Talk is based off of the novel by James Baldwin. So, when you read the book yourself, what made you feel as though this needed to be on the big screen?

Barry Jenkins: Part of it was the love between Tish and Fonny. It’s just such a pure, romantic depiction of Black love and in tandem with that, this family – just this idea that her family embraces her so fully and embraces him so fully as well when they have to go on this journey.

Speaking about family, If Beale Street Could Talk is about love but it shows different types of love – family, a couple and your films have dealt with these themes before. So, I was wondering what about these kinds of stories and films about different kinds of love really speaks to you?

Barry Jenkins: You know, I don’t know. It’s just something that I always gravitate towards. You know, my producer was joking with me and said, ‘Barry makes films about love!’ I never really thought of myself as that filmmaker, but those are the stories that organically grab me. James Baldwin’s written a lot of really amazing novels and short stories, and for whatever reason this was the one that I felt like, ‘I want to make this into a movie.’ You know, it’s not one of his most noted works and I think the reason for that is that it keys into all these different very subtle and nuanced ways Black people use love to sort of protect and sustain ourselves from the world outside.

One of my favourite scenes while I was watching was when Regina King’s character is looking in the mirror and she takes off her wig. So, with so many beautiful shots in the movie, which was one of your favourite scenes to do?

Barry Jenkins: That one, was one! I love it when in cinema, not the least amount of cutting needed to convey an emotion, but I think the least amount. I always want to remove myself as much as possible from the process and to me, that sequence is just an actress and the camera, you know? Her being so strong, yet vulnerable all at once that’s the essence of cinema. You could read that in a book, but when you see it it feels a certain kind of way. For me, my favourite sequence to film was the one between Stephan James and Brian Tyree Henry when they’re having that conversation in Fonny’s flat. There was just something very pure about stripping away the process – it’s just two Black men having a conversation and that’s all the drama you need; all the power you need. Again, I love it when in cinema you can take the barest element to create the richest metaphor.

KiKi Layne is amazing as Tish and If Beale Street Could Talk is surprisingly her first feature film. What was it like working with her?

Barry Jenkins: It was great! When you’re working with different actors, they all have a different language that they speak as far as how to guide them through a performance, how they give feedback, how they receive feedback and with KiKi, you’re right. She had the least experience of everybody on the film and it was wonderful to see her grow into the process, and watch the other actors and start to understand how somebody like Regina King, who is just so experienced and just so talented, and amazing – to watch how Regina operated and for her to incorporate those things in her process.

You’ve said that it’s been a really long process trying to get this film made and although it’s not set in 2018, there are still so many you see while watching the film, even the Gordon Parks photos, that easily look like it could have been taken today. So, how does you feel about the film’s timeliness?

Barry Jenkins: To me, it was a hope of mine. This book was published in 1974, yet as you said, so much of what’s said in the film is relevant to today. I was hoping in that, you would see we’ve made progress, but we still have quite a ways to go. I think again, taking the simplest elements and arriving at the most rich metaphor, I think the fact that some of the things said in this book are still relevant is the whole point of the adaptation.

Resilience is a huge part of this film, so was there anything that you felt while you were filming it or watching it back that felt personal to you in regards to resiliency?

Barry Jenkins: It did. This line is in the film and it’s also in the book, “Mama gets to Puerto Rico on an evening plane…” just the thought that Sharon, this matriarch, got on a plane and flew to Puerto Rico to save her daughter’s husband, to me that’s it in a nutshell. Because Black women they will get on that plane and fly to Puerto Rico to save they baby.

There are so many strong Black women within this film and in your other films as well, and they all depict various experiences that Black women go through. Can you tell us more about that?

Barry Jenkins: I wrote these scripts at the same time and in a way, I feel like the two are companion pieces in a certain way. Moonlight is the family that I grew up in and If Beale Street Could Talk is maybe the family that I could’ve or would’ve liked to have had. And you know, you’re right, they show different aspects of the Black experience. In each one, it kind of shows there is no one Black experience. It’s a multitude of experiences. In Moonlight, there’s one Black family and there’s one Black matriarch, and in Beale Street, there’s another. But, it’s all a part of the same collective experience. But it is important to me to show the multitudes that these people have.

What would you like audiences who see this film to leave thinking or feeling?

Barry Jenkins: You know, it’s complicated. You know, if 30 people watch this film, I would hope that they would leave with 30 different feelings because I hope that it activates their own personal experience, and all our personal experiences are very unique. So, I hope it activates their personal experience in a unique way and really, my biggest and greatest hope is that people can look at Tish and Fonny, look at their struggle and yet, see the resilience. Not to be hokey about it, but see the power that love has and the sustaining qualities of that love. In this film, in particular, Black love.

In regards to diversity in film, do you think that it’s going in a better direction?

Barry Jenkins: I think, for sure. You know, there’s still progress that has to be made but I do think it’s going in a better direction, and part of it is illustrated in coming here (TIFF) and walking the red carpet, seeing the many hues of journalists on the carpet, but also too, looking at the films that are playing and seeing all these amazing depictions of, for me, personally, Blackness that are on display at TIFF. Also, movies directed by women; just so many different things. The biggest place where I see it though is if I walk into a studio. I got into this industry in 2004 and at that time, I’d walk into a studio and I would expect to see certain kinds of faces. But now when I walk into a studio, I see many different kinds of faces and I think those people empower us to make different kinds of work.

You mentioned women directors and people of colour in the film industry at TIFF. Are there any films by diverse directors, writers or feature a diverse cast that you’re hoping to catch at TIFF if you have the time?

Barry Jenkins: I saw Widows the other night and loved it! Mr. McQueen is a boss! I would love to see Amma’s film (Where Hands Touch), but I won’t have time before I leave. I’m going to catch Rein’s film (Monsters and Men) when it releases for sure and then, outside that I’m going to see High Life tomorrow because Claire Denis is my favorite.

Be sure to watch If Beale Street Could Talk when it arrives in theaters on November 30!

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