Academy Award-winning writer/director Barry Jenkins’ first film since the Best Picture Oscar-winning “Moonlight” is “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Set in early-1970s Harlem, based on the novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk, is the story of Tish, newly engaged Harlem woman who races against the clock to prove her lover’s innocence while carrying their first-born child to term. It is a celebration of love told through the story of a young couple, their families and their lives, trying to bring about justice through love, for love and the promise of the American dream.
Through the unique intimacy and power of cinema, If Beale Street Could Talk honors the author’s prescient words and imagery, charting the emotional currents navigated in an unforgiving and racially biased world as the filmmaker poetically crosses time frames to show how love and humanity endure.
The Knockturnal: You guys are the ultimate parents in this film. Where did you draw that from?
Colman Domingo: I think we come from that kind of love. Whether we received it from our parents, uncles and cousins, and neighbors. It was something we just had culled from our own experiences. It was not that you weren’t up to that task of research, of looking at things so far outside of yourself. This was like the one bit of research, where you’re like, “Oh, I just need to go into some family albums, and recall some stories of cookouts and barbecues.” “Remember that time they showed out at that party.” Well, we got a moment of showing out in this film.
The Knockturnal: You guys got to spend a lot of time with each other on this film. What did you learn about each other and what do admire most about each other?
Regina King: There were so many things I’d just kind of assumed with Colman, just because we never really met. Maybe if we did, it was just like, hi, in passing. But I knew he was a director. I knew he was a writer. I knew he was a producer. So I have all of these ideas in my head of how this man’s mind must work for him to do all of these things and be such a powerful actor at the same time. I just feel like as I got to know him, those things were confirmed. All the specialness that I thought about you were just confirmed to the third power. Yeah. And I’m still enjoying it, and learning more …
Colman Domingo: I feel the same way about Regina. I’ve known her work, and been a fan of her work for so many years. And then, the idea of being able to dance with one another in a film, I got to know how inquisitive she is. I love the way your mind works. She thinks as a director, as a writer, as a creator of like … I think she’s a great teammate. And I’ve watched her be a great teammate. And asking questions about how cameras are moving, so she can do what she needs to do for the character. And it’s never stepping on toes. Just like, “How do I help this moment happen?” And she’s inquiring about everything, and raising questions. And she loves to have long conversations about different things, about different stories that will eventually, I think, make its way into the seams of the film or character. But we talked about families, we talked about stories, and …
Regina King: We talked about everything.
Colman Domingo: We talked about everything. And so, I’m so enjoying the ride that I’m on with her. Truly.
The Knockturnal: There are a lot of tough scenes to film in this movie. A lot of, I’m sure, exciting scenes for you to film. What was your most tough, and also your most exciting scene?
Colman Domingo: There’s some scenes that are not in the film. I think there’s one … the one that was towards the end of the film, where I come in, explaining how … Frank dies in the book. And we shot this scene. And it was such an emotional … There was a lot of things that needed to happen. And it was really … You have to maintain that level of … to be honest and devastated. It’s a lot to maintain.
Regina King: I would agree with that. And I forgot about that. Yeah. And it took so long to shoot. And we were only looking pretty much two directions, but we were in that scene for like six-seven hours. And then that propels to the birth. So there’s a lot of things that need to happen. You’re wrestling with a lot. And Sharon, in particular, you’re in between two things, and your daughter and your husband, and all that stuff. And so it was difficult, but I think … You’ll see it on the DVD.
The Knockturnal: This film was so beautiful, as you guys already know. I love what you guys did, acting-wise. My favorite part was your physicality. Tell us what kind of prep you did going into it.
Stephan James: You know, Fonny is a sculptor. And as an artist, I wanted to make sure I was really embodying that aspect of it. So I did a lot of wood training, chiseling. And I really wanted to know what that meant to have to take something that’s seemingly nothing and turn it into something. I think that it’s sort of what we do in acting, when you take a script and you’re able to give a performance that brings it light and has color to it, and gives it life. But yeah, I think that was probably a big part of the physical aspect of Fonny.
Kiki Layne: For me, it was paying attention to things the book kind of spoke to. I don’t know, there’s certain type of people who need those people around them. I could recognize that Tish was just someone who was as naturally just independent, takes up space as much as I do. And so I started to play around with what does that look like? To not be someone who maybe takes up as much space, or to be someone who invites a lot of help, and a lot of that nurturing and tenderness in. And so I found myself, like, how do I make my five-foot nine self a little smaller, you know? Unless I’m standing.
The Knockturnal: You guys obviously spent a lot of time together doing this. What did you learn from each other doing this project? And what do you admire most about each other?
Stephan James: Working with Kiki, to me, it was incredible because it sort of gave me perspective of what it was like for me, being in my first movie. And seeing the energy and the light that she brought to the set every day, having her as a scene partner. Somebody who is so open. I think the purity of her and innocence of her, I think that aspect of it really was appealing to me. I think that it was fun for me to have her as a scene partner and to be able to bounce off of her in that way.
Kiki Layne: I just felt so supported by Steph. I mean, he had to be the person to witness my first timer mistakes the most and was just so helpful in me learning to navigate a film set. And especially helpful in me gaining confidence on a film set and gaining confidence in speaking up about what I needed. Like, there would be some times where I’m thinking about something like, “Man, I probably could use another rehearsal, I think.” And then he was like, “Hey, I think Kiki needs another rehearsal.” And then it gave me that energy of like, “Okay. Well, next time I can just say that myself.” So I was very, very thankful for that. And then he’s also just a phenomenal actor.
The Knockturnal: How did you know this was the Baldwin book you wanted to adapt?
Barry Jenkins: When a friend of mine sent it to me and I read it for the first time. And when I understood just how lush the romance between Tish and Fonny was. That was what first grabbed me. But then also, too, the tragedy of the situation they find themselves in grabbed me as well. And kind of the tension, the duality between this idea of a thing descending while this other thing, this love, is blossoming. It just kind of opened up all this very fertile visual territory for me.
The Knockturnal: The dynamics, the relationships are so genuine, pure. It’s one of my favorite things about the movie. How did you accent that in the script when you’re directing?
Barry Jenkins: To me, it was about preserving those things. It’s so pure and visceral in the source material. And so it’s kind of lovely. I feel like I’m cheating in these last two films … because Tarell McCraney is a MacArthur genius. James Baldwin is a genius, period. So to me, it was about preserving those things. In certain way, about not messing them up. And I feel like all praise to Mr. Baldwin, because you’re right. I think the dynamic between characters, between the scenarios is so rich and fertile, that you just want to translate those things to the characters and onto the screen as best you can.
The Knockturnal: Moonlight is such an iconic film now. How did Moonlight prepare you for this?
Barry Jenkins: It’s interesting because it had been eight years between making films. There were certain things that we tried aesthetically in Moonlight, but we tried them out of fear almost. Like, can I have characters look at the camera? Can I have different actors embody this main character? And we still made those choices, but we were terrified of making them. I think, going into Beale Street, it gave us more confidence to trust our gut, trust our instinct and make those choices with confidence. I think in that way, when I’m on set, I think when you’re working out of fear versus working out of confidence or working out of intuition, those things yield, I think, better results. And so, I think in that way, there’s a connection between the aesthetic of the two films.
The Knockturnal: If you could pick one person to watch this movie, who would it be and why?
Barry Jenkins: It’s already happened. So James Baldwin’s sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart runs his estate. And I think when you make a film, there’s always an ideal audience. For me with Moonlight, that was Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In this case, it was Gloria Karefa-Smart, who’s charged, or tasked, with protecting James Baldwin’s legacy. And if she didn’t like this film, then maybe I’d have gone to Annapurna and said, “You know what? We can’t release it. We gotta do something. We gotta fix it.” That probably would not have happened, but she was the most important person for me. Now if it was any person in the history of human existence? Obviously James Baldwin. I would love to sit with him and drink a cognac and smoke a cigarette, and see what he thinks. I would hope he would be proud.