KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins’ 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' (Annapurna Pictures)
In October, shortly before my Fairmont Hotel interview with Barry Jenkins, the filmmaker tweeted a photograph of one clean, pink button down shirt captioned, “A very efficient SF laundry day at the coin op on Bush, real chill laundromat.”
It wasn't the kind of messaging you’d expect to see from the Academy Award-winner (for best screenplay) and director of Moonlight. The truth is, despite a social media feed that includes trips to film festivals around the world, Jenkins is down to earth.
He was in San Francisco to screen his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk, a love story set in New York City during the 1970s adapted from a James Baldwin novel. I started the interview with the most important—and pressing—question.
Did anyone recognize you in the laundromat?
No, no, no. I'm not recognized many places, certainly not laundromats. Unless it's LA or I'm walking a red carpet. I actually enjoy doing laundry. It's 90 minutes and you know that you're making progress, that things are soiled and now they're cleaned. And it's always this magnetic, hypnotic sound in laundromats. I just love it.
I was almost late to the movie, stuck on a train, texting my friend and running down the street to get there on time. It was such a contrast to the world inside the movie. You slow down the pace of modern life in If Beale Street Could Talk from the very first frame.
After the last film [Moonlight], I think the audience should know what they're in for when they come to these movies that we make. Honestly, the way we ingest images is often at a very rapid clip. Now, you go to the New York Times or ESPN, and you gotta watch a 15 second spot. Spots used to be 60 seconds. Now we're telling the same story in less time. We're used to very rapidly ingesting all these nuggets of information, but there's no emotion around the nugget. In cinema, especially if you're going to give me two hours, why does that two hours need to flow at this same pace of this hectic, unnatural experience of everyday life now with all these gadgets that we have? To me, it's just about what is the tone and feeling of the thing? We're going to create the space for the tone and the feeling to rebuild themselves.
Justin Simien recently interviewed you for his podcast Don’t @ Me. He asked you to choose one favorite film. You came up with three but he held you to your top choice, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. What were your other two?
Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas, for sure. It’s a story set in this Mennonite community in Mexico, which is very strange. It's about this idea of the human heart having the capacity to love more than one person despite everything the religion tells him is feasible or possible. The third would've been Killer of Sheep (1978) by Charles Burnett.
In Beale Street, Stephan James plays Fonny Hunt, the male lead who's arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. James does a remarkable job of showing how Fonny begins to change once he’s incarcerated. What led you to cast him?
He played Jesse Owens in Race. He was in the film Selma, just really wise beyond his years. And the biggest thing with his performance [in Beale Street] is through glass. There's literally this barrier between him and Tish [his girlfriend, played by KiKi Layne] and between him and the audience. You need to feel what he's going through in order to track this de-evolution, this deterioration of his person. Stephan and I talked about what that was like and how it was different than what Chiron [the main character] undergoes in Moonlight. I'd say the analog for him in Moonlight is in the third chapter where you're starting to see the life come back into Chiron’s eyes as he spends this fictive, long day into night with his childhood crush.
In Beale Street, you're seeing Stephan take the opposite journey, where at the beginning, there's all this hope and vitality. Fonny and Tish are both naïve in the beginning, where they think, he’ll be in prison a week and then we'll go home and have our baby. But as the reality sets in, you start to see him drift away from his own dream. It's a lovely and very nuanced performance.
In Beale Street as in Moonlight, how do you get such sensitive performances from your male actors?
Part of it is casting. The other part is creating a working environment that feels like a space where the men won't be judged for revealing this part of themselves. Because I'm sure we all have that within us. It's just the world teaches us that we're not allowed to show it, and we're not allowed to "indulge it," air quotes. Because it feels like an indulgence to allow ourselves to be vulnerable as men. But the scenario that these characters in these last two films find themselves in are almost hyper-vulnerable. Like hyper-masculinity is a word, this is hyper-vulnerability.
But to go back to your question about pacing, the scene of the peak male vulnerability in this film is when Fonny's [and his] friend, Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, have this random encounter in the street. And then there's this 15-minute sequence where you slowly start to see this exterior posture start to erode and the reality of this is full of nerve endings, a damaged man rebuilding himself.
Regina King plays Tish’s mother Sharon. Before she says a word to her daughter in their first scene together, you can tell that Sharon has Tish’s back.
What I love about that is that's a scene where they could say everything, but because of the power of their faces—and I've watched this movie with so many audiences—and the women in the audience, they know what KiKi is going to say before she says it because they can read it on Regina's face. To me, when you talk about technique, that is, in my films, I want to say everything in as few words as possible. When you work with somebody like Regina King, the words are fine, but it's all there on the face.