Barry Jenkins, whose glorious “Moonlight” won three Academy Awards including best picture, did a simple thing to follow up.
On “If Beale Street Could Talk,” opening Christmas Day, he rehired almost the same crew that worked on “Moonlight.”
“Part of the way that I’ve sort of evolved in making films is with these key collaborators; you can either learn a new language, or you can keep evolving the existing language, he said in October, in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival with actress KiKi Layne.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is elegant, meticulous, yet heartbreakingly alive, and flowing with poetry. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, it’s about a young woman, Tish (Layne), who becomes engaged to her childhood friend Fonny (Stephan James) and becomes pregnant, but Fonny is arrested and jailed for a crime he did not commit.
Jenkins, whose fine first film, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” was shot in San Francisco, adapted the book more or less as practice: “I didn’t expect to make the film at the time that I wrote it. I just had to write something. In that sense it took some of the intellectual pressure off. It was purely about process,” he says.
When he finished, he realized it “wasn’t too bad,” so he began to try to obtain the movie rights.
Casting was another challenge. Layne, whose only credit was on a television movie, was chosen from among hundreds. She only learned about the film by helping someone else read lines.
“I realized I could see the growth and the change that Tish was going through. Then, in those moments where it was more narration, I could recognize that feeling of being more reflective,” says Layne, who researched meticulously after winning the part.
She even studied pregnancy to understand how to play the character at different points: “I learned a lot that made me, like, ‘Girl you are not ready for any of that!’” she says.
Jenkins and director of photography James Laxton came up with innovative moments like a single-take conversation between Fonny and an ex-convict friend (Brian Tyree Henry). Likewise, Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell created something far from a passive listening experience; they move the music all around, “as if the room is starting to swirl.”
A filmmaker attentive to the smallest details, Jenkins quotes an old Hollywood adage: “Movies are never completed… they’re simply abandoned. I could still be tweaking ‘Moonlight’ right now, if I was allowed to,” he says.
Jenkins says his first thoughts go to Beale Street in Memphis, the birthplace of the blues, when considering the story’s title.
He says the blues speak of the “melancholy, beauty, pain and suffering that black people have had to endure in this country — and yet have always found a way to wring some sort of beautiful, soulful, human existence out of these conditions.”
Adding that many cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, have Beale Streets, he says, “Anyplace where black folks have found a way to create a community, you could consider a Beale Street. And if that place could talk, I think it would speak in the voice of James Baldwin.”
Now that he has readied (or abandoned) “Beale Street,” Jenkins is already at work on a 10-episode TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” and several other projects.
“I went eight years between ‘Medicine’ and ‘Moonlight,’ and now it feels like I’m not allowing myself to have even a second of a break,” he says. “I’m making up for those eight years!”
IF YOU GO
If Beale Street Could Talk
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris
Written and directed by: Barry Jenkins
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes