×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Beale Street’ Re-Creations Evoke 1970s Harlem

For weeks, director Barry Jenkins and the department heads of his latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” met at production designer Mark Friedberg’s Manhattan home, where they crafted the look of the movie, released on Christmas Day, scene by scene.

Costume designer Caroline Eselin, who had worked with Jenkins on his Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” cherished the process and left with what she describes as “the most amazing gift ever” — one of the books Friedberg made for everyone out of the material generated during those creative sessions.

The James Baldwin novel on which “Beale Street” is based was a rich source of visual inspiration. Like the book, the film, set in 1970s Harlem, centers on a young African-American couple — Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) — who are building a future together when Fonny is accused of rape and sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Right from the start viewers notice how film’s wardrobe is rich with color — vibrant greens and brilliant yellows.
“Baldwin gave us the permission of color,” Eselin says. “You can’t discount any of the hardship in the movie, but we wanted to celebrate color and what love will bring you through.”

Eselin also honored as often as possible the author’s specific wardrobe descriptions. Fonny’s red-and-black lumberjack jacket is straight from the book, as is the beret Tish’s mom, Sharon (Regina King), has on the day she comes home, and Tish reveals that she is pregnant. “Baldwin wrote that as her ‘cream-colored shopping hat,’ ” Eselin says.

Almost everything worn in the film is a vintage find, and Tish’s wardrobe is made up of only a few pieces because her character wouldn’t have been able to afford a lot of clothes. In the flashback scenes, Tish is wearing items — including a wool cape Eselin lucked upon in the bottom of a cardboard box at a New Jersey clothing recycler — that speak to her youth and optimism.

When we see her in present time, her wardrobe reflects maturity and her emotional stress. In one scene, Tish is wearing Sharon’s sweater while visiting Fonny in jail, perhaps finding some comfort being wrapped up in a piece of her mom’s clothing. “I wish I could take credit for that, but that’s all Barry Jenkins,” Eselin says. “It was something he thought up when we got to set that day.”

Jenkins continually inspired his team. Friedberg recalls taking the director to see a former jail in Staten Island that is now a movie set, thinking it would work for the many scenes in which Tish visits Fonny in prison.
“We walked in, and about eight seconds later, we walked out. Barry said, ‘It’s not a movie about the horrors of an African-American man in jail,’ ” Friedberg says. “Barry really wanted that scene to be about their connection. It’s not about the space they’re in, it’s about the space between them.”

So Friedberg built a small prison visiting room in an old warehouse in Yonkers, N.Y., where he also constructed the basement workshop/apartment Fonny lived in before his life took a dark turn.

One of the film’s most impressive sets is the Rivers family apartment where Tish lives with her parents and her sisters. It looks and feels lived in. Friedberg built the home on one floor of a Harlem townhouse that had been bought by a real estate investor who was about to flip it.

“It was a tough sell, initially,” Friedberg says, noting that Jenkins and DP James Laxton weren’t convinced they could shoot one of the film’s key scenes — a conversation between the Rivers and Hunt families — in the space. But Friedberg promised he could make it work, and the apartment “ended up being the heart and soul of the art department’s contribution to the movie.

“We were a very small movie with limited resources and somehow we managed to tell the story in all the places it needed to be.”

More Film

  • Alfonso Cuaron's 'Roma' Companion Album to

    Alfonso Cuarón's New 'Roma' Album to Feature Beck, Patti Smith, El-P, T Bone Burnett

    Not to be outdone by Ariana Grande’s impending record news, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has announced the track list and release date for his new album, which, coincidentally, is also due Feb. 8. He’s the curator of “Music Inspired by the Film Roma,” which was already teased by a Billie Eilish track, and is now revealed [...]

  • The Beach Bum Trailer

    Watch: Matthew McConaughey Stars in Groovy New 'The Beach Bum' Trailer

    Matthew McConaughey takes on new levels of drug use in the latest trailer for “The Beach Bum.” True to the film’s title, the trailer opens on a trashy beach town stage where McConaughey’s character Moondog is waiting to accept some sort of musical award. “Before I accept whatever award it is they’re giving me today, [...]

  • SAG Awards Placeholder

    SAG Awards Unveils Presenters After Accusing Academy of 'Intimidation'

    The SAG Awards has unveiled its first round of presenters, including Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Rami Malek, Chadwick Boseman, Adam Driver, Sam Elliott, and Constance Wu. Wednesday’s announcement comes two weeks after SAG-AFTRA accused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of intimidation in trying to limit actors from presenting on awards shows other [...]

  • Kevin Hart Fatherhood

    Kevin Hart Partnering With STX on Two Comedies (EXCLUSIVE)

    Kevin Hart is partnering with STXfilms to produce on a pair of comedy movies through his HartBeat Productions with an eye to star in both projects, Variety has learned exclusively. The announcement comes on the heels of Hart’s solid box office performance in “The Upside,” in which he co-stars with Bryan Cranston. STX’s comedic drama, co-produced [...]

  • Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf

    Disruptor Netflix Joins Big Studios at the Table With MPAA Membership, Analysts Say

    Netflix is starting to look a lot like the media institutions it has been disrupting for years. In one fell swoop on Tuesday, the streaming giant racked up an impressive 15 Academy Award nominations, including a best picture nod for Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white, Spanish-language drama “Roma.” Hours later came official word that the company had [...]

  • Italy's Notorious Pictures Expands Into Exhibition,

    Italy's Notorious Pictures Expands Into Exhibition, Plans 200 Screens by 2023

    Italian distribution and production company Notorious Pictures is branching out into exhibition, aiming to have 20 multiplexes up and running within the next five years. The company has appointed former UCI Italy chief Andrea Stratta to head up a new Notorious Cinemas unit. The company said it was already in the process of taking out a [...]

  • cats logo

    As 'Cats' Starts Production, Downtown Lands Admin Deal for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music (EXCLUSIVE)

    Downtown Music Publishing has entered into a multi-year publishing administration deal with Faber Music, which represents the musical repertoire from “Cats,” the beloved and long-running Broadway sensation currently being turned into a feature film starring Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Idris Elba and Judi Dench, among others. The Universal picture, directed by Tom Hooper, recently [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content