PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
After the soaring success of “Moonlight,” writer-director Barry Jenkins is back this year with the lush, penetrating James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It’s very much an extension of Jenkins’ work to date, and following Oscar glory, that’s not always a given. Who knows what direction that kind of acclaim might take an artist. But Jenkins hunkered down with his creative team and answered back with a beautiful piece of work that deepened his voice and served as a more-than-worthy follow-up to a film many consider to be one of the best of the 21st century. We catch up to him in New York, following the U.S. premiere of the film at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater.
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The rights to Baldwin novels are notoriously difficult to acquire. Jenkins wrote an adaptation of “Beale Street” on spec and when he began working with the Baldwin estate in earnest on the project, he found it heartening that the family spoke about his 2009 debut “Medicine for Melancholy” as much as “Moonlight.” But Jenkins originally came to Baldwin’s works thanks to an ex-girlfriend, who in breaking up with him suggested he tap into the celebrated novelist and social critic’s words. What was she hoping to instill in him?
“I think I had a very narrow view of what a man could be,” Jenkins says. “I had a narrow view of what a black man could be, and I think I had a naive view of what America was. She could have given me any book, any novel to read first. ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is a novel about two men and a love affair. It was the first time I had read any queer literature, anything featuring a gay character. It was the first time I read a lovemaking scene between two men — all these first experiences. What was so key about that was those experiences, in a certain way, mirrored experiences I had had in my life. So I was identifying with these characters who I assumed I was not able to identify with. So I think it was just her way of getting me to open my world view, and she was absolutely right.”
Jenkins took off from the page, where Baldwin went to great lengths detailing environments. The craft of the film owes much to the cinema of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, making for a far more refined film than “Moonlight” but one that, again, bears a resemblance in atmosphere and themes. Much of the discussion centers on those elements of the production.
“I think maybe more than any other Baldwin novel I’ve read, he really goes into detail describing how things look,” Jenkins says. “It’s a really specific voice he applies to describing the way a fabric feels, what a character is wearing, how the light is hitting a certain thing as these characters meet on Lennox Avenue. So we took our cues from Baldwin. We would all get together at [production designer] Mark Friedberg’s house and just compare notes. We would put up swatches. And I think we realized we were working our way toward a bright, saturated palette.”
Finally, as with Damien Chazelle recently, we catch up with Jenkins a year-and-a-half removed from #EnvelopeGate, the Oscars snafu that caused “La La Land” to be erroneously announced as the best picture winner at the 89th Academy Awards. That night was a roller coaster, and the morning-after discussion with Chazelle and Variety was a salve for the rawer emotions it left. It remains an unusual event, but understandably a tough one to fully stomach. After all, a historic moment was undercut in all that chaos.
“There was a period as recently as earlier this year when it was still really bothering me,” Jenkins says. “The Academy was really kind. They offered us a little something at the last awards show and I just wasn’t ready. I even went to Palm Springs to watch the ceremony, which my friends told me, ‘Yeah, that’s PTSD, bruh.’ But now thinking back on it, you know, unfortunate, but I think ultimately kind of a beautiful thing, in the sense that one, I think more people are going to go and watch this film because of what happened at the Oscars with ‘Moonlight.’ Certainly more people saw ‘Moonlight’ because of what happened at the Oscars. Some people were on the fence. Some people maybe saw it and wanted to share it. I’ve been told this story personally: People who saw it saw themselves in it and were afraid to share it with their family or with their parents. After the Oscars they were like, ‘OK, now, you have to sit down and watch this movie with me because I have something to tell you.'”
For more, including discussion of filling out his wonderful “Beale Street” cast and thoughts on the shifting landscape of visual storytelling forms, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.