Inside Manhattan’s Essex Hotel, Barry Jenkins sits with his legs crossed in a sparsely furnished room on the third floor. The Academy-Award winning director is in town to promote his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaption from author, essayist, and critic James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Jenkins, wearing a royal blue knit sweater and a gray T-shirt, offers a hug and promises he’s not contagious despite his sniffles. It’s a chilly late November day but before the interview begins, he gets up from his seat once again to turn off the heat.
The warmth, love, and intimacy albeit with a splash of naivety by way of the film’s lead characters, cannot, however, be turned down or off. It stays with moviegoers long after the film’s credits prompting them to question their own beliefs and boundaries about love. Is their love strong enough to withstand the pressure of being young parents from warring families? Or could they weather the unforgiving storm of the prison system? More importantly, have they ever experienced a love, tender yet resolute, like the one depicted on screen? Jenkins forces those questions.
If Beale Street Could Talk centers around Tish and Fonny (Kiki Layne in her first feature film, and Race’s Stephan James) who in the middle of their unblemished doe-eyed love come face-to-face with America’s lust for imprisoning black men. This isn’t the first love story Jenkins has tackled. The Florida native earned a buzz for himself with 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy and then became Hollywood’s darling in 2016 with his Academy Award-winning Moonlight. Jenkins’ ability to cinematically depict the beauty and complexity of relationships among black people has been at the heart of his work, and he continues that pattern, at his highest artistic level to date, with Beale Street.
But any talk of his own love life merits an adjustment in his seat, a crossing, and uncrossing of his legs, and a readjustment of his Oliver Peoples glasses.
“Yeah, of course, [I’ve been in love],” he says slightly high-pitched and bashful. “Of course.”
Jenkins is down-to-earth, chill and open but he politely, yet assertively discontinues any questions about his personal life at the onset of our discussion. Want to discuss his art? No problem. His heart? Well…no. He does allow for one last intimate inquiry: What lesson is love trying to teach you that you’re not learning?
“Oh, that’s interesting. I think love is trying to teach me to love myself. I feel like I’m really having a hard time learning that which is something that I think—
“Even at 39?” I interrupt.
“Yeah, even at 39. Thank you for pointing out that I’m 39,” he says with a chuckle. “I think that who we are as people for the first 10 years of our lives stay with us for the next 60 years of our lives. I know that I’m capable of loving myself, and it’s something that I have to constantly work at. I think because I’m working hard at so many other things, that I lose sight of that quite often.”
Jenkins uses the words “interesting” and “man” regularly. When he’s thinking of how to respond to a question he begins with “it’s interesting, man” or “oh, that’s interesting.” A telltale sign that he’s mentally buying time before responding. When asked how he first came to know Baldwin’s work, interestingly enough, he was introduced to the writer through a past love who wanted him to arrest his unyielding definition of black masculinity.
“It’s interesting, man, she gave me the one-two!” Jenkins says reminiscently. “It was Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room just so I could become a little less rigid in how I carried myself and what I thought a black man should be, you know? And then I started reading Baldwin for myself and realized how wide the breadth of his work was.”
At 5-feet-8 inches tall, Jenkins is brown-skinned and bald with a perfected nerd appeal. Not nerdy in an awkward way, more like he can wax poetic about a number of French foreign films, but isn’t too high-brow to understand the emotional importance of say, The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.” For Jenkins, using the famous Roberta Flack remake for the film’s third and final trailer acted as a musical bed for Tish and Fonny’s affair.
“It’s always been a song that’s resonated with me and it felt like this love between KiKi and Stephan, I mean between Tish and Fonny, there was something not tragic about it but very pure and at the same time brutal about it.”
In Beale Street, there’s a scene in which Tish and Fonny look directly at one another. There’s no dialogue, just a young black couple in love gazing into one another’s eyes. A smile eventually creeps over their faces, but not for a moment or so. I share how a few audience members shifted in their seats at an early screening I attended. Jenkins surmises the reaction is two-fold.
“I think when you watch a movie you don’t ever expect to have to look someone in the eye. It’s interesting. Movies can be emotional. People cry in movies all the time, but they cry without directly connecting to the person on screen. So I think the idea of having to look the character on the screen directly in the eye is unnerving because it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not outside I’m within it.’
“You asked me earlier about love and all that stuff and I don’t like to talk about my personal life in these interviews, but I have a girlfriend and sometimes we look at each other. We talk a lot but I feel like when we look at each other, like how you and I are looking at each other right now, that’s when it’s like real. There’s no avoiding…
“No escaping,” I chime.
“Right, no escaping whatever’s between us. And I feel like carrying that emotion, that feeling from my personal life into the work has been something that’s been a blessing. I wish I was there to see the people move and squirm,” Jenkins admits. “And that moment comes way late in the film, in like the last five minutes, those direct close-ups with KiKi and Stephan, at least the ones that I love the most. And yeah you should [squirm] because all these things you’ve been feeling, you’re not going to be allowed to shake it off when you leave the theater. You’re going to have to take that sh*t with you.”
Jenkins accents “take that sh*t with you” by slapping his index finger on the table, so it sounds like take (slap) that (slap) sh*t (slap) with (slap) you.
Tish and Fonny’s union isn’t the sole relationship that holds center stage. The camaraderie between Fonny and Daniel Carty, played by Brian Tyree Henry, also captivates. The Atlanta actor enters the frame while running into Fonny and Tish on the street. He’s smiling, joking, hugging his brother and from the outside looking in, everything is everything. But as Carty’s character blooms viewers begin to see life isn’t all peachy.
“You know, it’s interesting. That brotherly love and then that vulnerability, it’s one of those things where I feel like the way I interact with my homeboys back home and with all the cats in my frat, just the black men that I know, I don’t often see those kinds of interactions depicted,” Jenkins says. “For one, I think it takes a bit of time for us to get to that point. When I say us, I mean black men to get to that point where we really reveal ourselves to one another. And in a movie, typically, you’ve got to get there in two minutes, three minutes. But I feel like with this book and with this film, there was an opportunity to create a space where over the course of 10, 12, minutes you can really see Brian and Stephan act out this dynamic that I’ve seen whether it’s between my uncles, whether it’s me and my homeboys at the family cookout or whatever.”
That dynamic Jenkins speaks of is the slow undoing of “I’m fine” or “I’m good, I’m okay” that often occurs between black men and may require a drink, a smoke, or a drink and a smoke to journey to the heart of the matter.
“To me, what I think Brian and Stephan are doing in that scene is going through this whole wave of progressions where they’re trying to really understand and figure out: ‘Am I comfortable enough to truly go to this place?’ And I think they both do such a wonderful job because Brian’s character shows up on the sidewalk cracking jokes, talking funny about the art, hugging his lady. She’s going out to buy groceries, everything is cool and then literally, within the span of eight to 10 minutes, you see this dude is hurt, deeply hurt,” Jenkins says. “And the journey Fonny is on theoretically could end up in this place where Brian’s character ended up, so it was really important to me and the book. It’s one thing to intellectually experience that as you’re reading a novel, but to see Brian Tyree Henry ride the wave in the course of one scene, that to me is cinema.”
Jenkins’ road to film was a wave in itself, yet during the middle of my 15-minute interview, five of those minutes were hijacked by my mother who called as I recorded from my phone. Before I could hit ignore, Jenkins, thrilled the caller ID read “Mommy,” picked up, put her on speaker and began chatting away. Despite his nerdy demeanor Jenkins isn’t short on charm and gracefully wooed my mom with his “Ask me a question, my dear.” Taking the bait, she giggled and queried him about his path. Jenkins spoke truthfully and humbly about growing up in Miami’s projects and not feeling he had the technical skills his white college peers had. “But they didn’t have my voice,” he said speaking into the phone.
Jenkins’ voice and his dedication to showing the beauty of blackness, black bodies, and black lives while making our stories universal has catapulted the filmmaker. But if you ask him how he manages those tasks, he’ll tell you he doesn’t even give it much thought.
“You know, I take that sh*t off the table,” he says nonchalantly. “Only because I’m black. I’m a human being. Black folks are human beings, you know? I think the spectrum of experience among human beings is pretty singular. We all love. We all yearn. We all hurt. We all suffer. We all experience joy. The feeling of my joy should be just as immediate and accessible and quote end quote universal in its specificity as anyone else’s. And so the idea I’m trying to create imagery surrounding blackness that is then relatable to someone who is not black, that sh*t just doesn’t occur to me,” Jenkins said.
“To me, I’m trying to tell as truthfully and as authentically the experience of the characters. In a certain way, if you want to come and meet that, you have to come and meet that on our terms.”