For writer-director Barry Jenkins, the question wasn’t whether to adapt James Baldwin, but which of his novels to adapt. A student of Baldwin, humble enough to recognize that he may not have been equipped with the necessary experience to tackle the heft of much of the culture critic’s dense work, Jenkins settled on the relative simplicity that is the love story in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which came to him via a trusted friend who envisioned the novel’s cinematic potential in his hands. Still mostly unknown at the time, Jenkins had to contend with how a relatively green feature filmmaker would adapt a distinguished work by a widely-admired author.
“I hadn’t read it at that point, which was a blindspot for me as far as Baldwin goes,” said Jenkins, who found what he felt was a perfect fusion of the essayistic Baldwin and his strengths as an observant storyteller. “I was really excited about two things: One, before I read it, I didn’t realize it was basically like James Baldwin writing a thriller, which I thought was cool. Then I was really moved by how romantic it is on one hand, and then how biting it is on the other.”
A most important first step was the seemingly daunting task of getting permission from Baldwin’s notoriously protective estate. Luckily for Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay before seeking approval, he didn’t have to be aggressive in his pursuit, although patience was essential.
“There was so much going on in their world and they like to be diligent, and they move as a committee,” said Jenkins of a process that took around three years, wrapping up the deal just ahead of “Moonlight’s” premiere. “It wasn’t that one person gave me the okay. All the sisters had to give me the okay, and then the extended family. So it took a while, but we got there.”
Mostly faithful to Baldwin’s original work, audiences familiar with the novel will immediately recognize where and how the film differs. Although Jenkins made it clear that just about every scene in the book was filmed, even though they didn’t all make the final cut.
An allure to adapting a novel is that the writer has something concrete to start from, but as Jenkins said, “While it was the first time Baldwin has been adapted for an English-language feature film, and there was some pressure to keep as much of it the same as possible, what it ultimately comes down to is: the book is the book, and the movie is the movie.”
It was a realization that relieved him of much of the stress that would expectedly come with this kind of momentous undertaking. “I didn’t expect it to go well,” the filmmaker said. “And so I took the burden of doing it well, off my shoulders. And then I felt like I had freedom to make the film I wanted to make.”
Wrestling to find its narrative spine, the screenplay would go through several of what he described as radical iterations that would eventually lead to a key revelation: “We finally hit on this idea that the first act need not flow the same way the second act does,” said Jenkins. “There’s a really hard delineation between the storytelling style between them. The first act is procedural, going back and forth between the past and present with Tish and Fonny. And the second is looser, jumping between characters, more poetic in tone.”
Baldwin’s fifth novel, published in 1974, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story set in Harlem in the early 1970s. Although he considered setting his adaptation in the present day, thinking it would be easier, Jenkins chose to leave the story in the past, believing that the timelessness of the themes, and the power of the author’s voice as delivered by the story’s first-person narrator, would ensure contemporary emotional resonance. And thus, although relying on voiceover is looked down upon, Jenkins decided from the start that Tish’s running narration was vital.
“It was one of the very first choices I made, because, part of that was, shit, Baldwin’s voice is amazing,” he said. “I mean, it’s Tish’s voice we’re hearing, but really, ultimately it’s Baldwin’s. And I had it in my head of having this young woman speaking these very potent, considered words.”
Jenkins was reassured of his choice when he screened another Baldwin film released before “Beale Street,” which used a similar technique: “‘I Am Not Your Negro’ came out, and I was like, this is really good! Let me make sure I’m doing this the right way.”
Directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished Baldwin manuscript, “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016) features a narration of the author’s own words, spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. “And he [Peck] worked with the estate for a long time on that film,” Jenkins said. “He actually got to the archives, which I barely touched.”
What Jenkins did get his hands on was access to Baldwin’s “Beale Street” notes. Prior to the start of production, the filmmaker received a package from the executor of Baldwin’s estate, his sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, which included an old notebook. Inside were handwritten notes that Baldwin made in 1978, on how he’d approach a film adaptation of “Beale Street,” including his casting choices and wish list of directors. “I had already finished my draft of the script by the time I got the notebook, so I was really pleased to read his notes confirming some of the choices I had made,” said Jenkins. “But I do wish there was more. I would’ve loved to see how his mind would have worked out more of the adaptation.”
Additionally, as a man telling a story from the point of view of a young woman, Baldwin was aware of the potential minefield he was stepping into, and sought the opinions of women writer friends, notably the equally esteemed Toni Morrison. “He was super nervous about what the response to the book would be, and he did face some criticism,” Jenkins said, who had similar concerns while adapting the novel.
“It was terrifying,” he said, adding that he was warned by women filmmaker friends about certain problematic “male gaze” scenes. “I’m glad they felt comfortable to tell me, because there were changes we made to rectify them,” he said.
Considering the question of whether it would have been more appropriate, even if only symbolically, that a black woman filmmaker should have been the first to adapt the novel, Jenkins said, “If it had been written by a woman, then I think it might have been a step too far for me to, not necessarily take ownership of it, but I could see how maybe I would not be the most ideal person to be the first director to adapt it. But that wasn’t the case, and I felt a level of comfort doing it.”
Approaching the adaptation like a jigsaw puzzle, the filmmaker relished Baldwin’s fractured, non-linear approach, which gave him permission to generously move scenes around in his script, experimenting with juxtaposition, until he was satisfied with the narrative flow. It also made it less painful to eliminate pieces.
“We had to cut out a lot of scenes,” said Jenkins, listing some of them, including what he described as a “really lovely conversation about unity between black and brown” with Tish (Kiki Layne) and Pedrocito (Diego Luna). About 40-minutes of filmed scene-work was cut but the most difficult to remove was the death of Fonny’s (Stephan James) father Frank (Michael Beach). “The omission of Frank committing suicide was a really big one,” he said. “We don’t say that it didn’t happen, we just don’t say or show that it does.”
It’s an occurrence in Baldwin’s novel that is of significant impact, and Jenkins believes that while the decision to eliminate it wasn’t an easy one, he felt it was necessary given the story he wanted to tell. “The way I approached it mentally is that, in a certain way, Frank commits suicide so that Tish and Fonny’s baby can be born,” the filmmaker said. “And also significant for me was that, at that point in the film, I didn’t want to represent the death of another black father, with Fonny already seeming like he’s going off the deep end, even with his baby about to be born. I especially didn’t want any mention of Frank’s death to affect what I think is the hope that we see in the child actually being born. So I decided to take it out to clear the path for the tableaux that we end the film on.”
Teasing that discarded scenes will be included as extras on the eventual home video release of “Beale Street,” Jenkins said, although it took him a while to get there, he’s proud of the final version of his adaptation, but is tuning out awards season chatter around it. Recalling his Best Picture Oscar win for “Moonlight” in 2017, he said, “How could I ever expect anything like that to happen with the very next film? I mean adapting ‘Beale Street’ demanded my full attention, and to have had these other things at the back of my head, like whether or not it would win an Oscar, would have tainted it.”
With back-to-back high caliber Baldwin films in “I Am Not Your Negro” and now “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the filmmaker hopes it’s momentum that will lead to other adaptations, and a reintroduction of the late novelist and social critic, especially to younger audiences. “That is my hope, because I do think we’re not reading as much as we used to,” Jenkins said. “And I think these films can serve as vessels that get people back into the writing of Baldwin.”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” opens in theaters on December 14 from Annapurna Pictures.