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Oscar winner and nominee Barry Jenkins on adapting the work of James Baldwin to the screen

The film “If Beale Street Could Talk” is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay. Director Barry Jenkins previously drew critical acclaim for his work on the 2017 best picture, “Moonlight.” He sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss the process of adapting James Baldwin’s work to the screen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced today.

    "The Favourite" and "Roma" got the most nominations.

    The film "If Beale Street Could Talk" earned three, including best adapted screenplay for writer and director Barry Jenkins.

    Jeffrey Brown recently talked with Jenkins about turning the words of writer James Baldwin into a feature film.

  • Stephan James:

    I love you. You know that?

  • Kiki Layne:

    I do. And I understand what you are going through, because I am with you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Two young people looking at each other through the glass of a prison visiting room. "If Beale Street Could Talk" could talk is the story of Tish, played by KiKi Layne, and Fonny, Stephan James, childhood best friends growing up in Harlem in the 1960s and '70s who become lovers as adults, only to see their dream crushed in a deeply racist society when Fonny is falsely accused of a crime.

  • Stephan James:

    You want me to die in here?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Based on the 1974 novel by the great James Baldwin, it's been adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    What Mr. Baldwin does so well is to crystallize these moments, you know, these moments in time, these feelings, and describe them to the reader in a way that they're both relatable, distinctive and also specific in a way that makes them universal.

    You know, he was a very observant person, a very wise person, and he spoke the truth. And I think that, unfortunately, the truth or the fact of America is that so many things that have been issues that we needed to deal with going back 50, 60, 70 years are still issues today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hewing closely to Baldwin's words and storyline, Jenkins has made a film that is itself both small and large, the intimate lives of individuals captured amid the much larger burden of African-American history in this country.

    I spoke with Jenkins recently at the Eaton Hotel in Washington, D.C.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    I feel like, in this book, those two voices were perfectly fused. And my job, I felt like, was to arrive at a certain level of parity in telling the stories, because I felt like the love story was the thing that was going to carry the day. It was the thing the audience was going to see themselves most readily in.

    And then we kind of slip in this other element. You know, there's less of it, but it's so much heavier, that now you don't realize, oh, I'm actually experiencing something that's real and vital and important.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're balancing these two very different registers.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One is a love story. And one is rage, right, and anger.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    And I think the power of Baldwin was and is that, in balancing those two things, you really show the relationship between the two.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When Tish discovers she's pregnant, her family rallies to support her. Regina King plays Tish's mother.

  • Regina King:

    We are drinking to new life. Tish going to have Fonny's baby.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So much of it is the interior life of the characters, right?

    I see what you have done with the way people look at each other or the way the camera looks at them. Sometimes, they look at us. Very unusual.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    You read a book, and everything is activated. You watch a movie, and it's a very passive experience. In a book, the author describes the smell. Through synesthesia, you intellectually smell this thing in your head.

    The author writes a lot of dialogue. You hear it in your head, whereas, in a movie, it's all outside you. And also, too, the camera is always around the actors. Even now, these cameras are just outside of us. I'm looking at you, so the camera can't know what it feels like to look you in the eye. This is a very different intimacy than that intimacy.

    And so, when making these films — because you're right — Baldwin's stock and trade was the interior voice, the interior life. I'm like, how can I give that experience to the audience?

    I want people to know, not only what it's like to walk a mile in these character's shoes, but to put their shoes on and really know what it feels like to go through these experiences.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Beale Street" is just Jenkins' third feature film, but it follows the remarkable "Moonlight," winner of an Oscar for best film in 2017.

    Few knew of Jenkins when that film came out. I asked about the enormous expectations and pressures on him with "Beale Street."

  • Barry Jenkins:

    Whether I had won eight Oscars or no Oscars, it's James damn Baldwin, you know? It's James Baldwin. That's pressure enough, in and of itself, because I wanted to honor his legacy in the way that I thought it should be honored.

    And he had never been adapted into a feature film in the English language before, and so that was pressure enough. And I kind of like — it was a nice escape to be able to slip into that.

    I have got to really be on my A-game to do this author justice, and not worry about the expectations of, will the film win this or will the film win that?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You were talking a little earlier about the African-American experience in this country and how it comes out in this story. And it's something we talked about, I remember, with "Moonlight" as well.

    Do you see that story being told more now in Hollywood?

  • Barry Jenkins:

    Absolutely. And I think the really beautiful thing about it is, it's being told in so many different ways.

    You know you can look at literally just the last year of films that were released, so many that I'm going to forget some in listing of these names. You have "Sorry to Bother You," "BlacKkKlansman," "Black Panther," which made $8 billion, "The Hate You Give."

    I mean, there's so many of these films, and they are nothing alike. I think that speaks to both the freedom of expression. I think it speaks to the access to tools. And I think — I mean this as a compliment — I think it speaks to the diversity of the audience. I think people don't want the African-American experience to be presented as a monolith.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And yet it's interesting to me. I'm coming from a news program, a news perspective. And you well know, we're living in a time where much of the news is about division.

  • Barry Jenkins:

    I think it's smoke and mirrors, man.

    I think the change has been ongoing for the last 15, 20, 30 years, but these things appear that make us believe that change is actually not what we believe it to be.

    When I think about the crew on my film, we actually filmed in New York, Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic, a completely wide, wide spectrum of people from many different backgrounds, many different races coming together to tell this story of an American black family set in the 1970s.

    So, what do I see in that? You know, I see a coming together, like a literal coming together, to now foster my voice. And that inspires me to want to go out and help other people foster their voices about their own experiences.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "If Beale Street Could Talk" took home a Golden Globe award for Regina King's performance.

    The film is playing in theaters nationwide.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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