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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: How Sensitive Editing Brought James Baldwin’s Novel to Cinematic Life

Editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders break down the dream house and male bonding scenes to reveal the breadth of the black experience.

Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture


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As a kindred spirit, Barry Jenkins had long wanted to adapt James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” And through the struggle of African-American couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) to find happiness in ’70s-era New York despite their separation from his wrongful incarceration, Jenkins sought to make cinematic the shared theme of love and injustice.

“I think one of the common things in Barry’s movies is the theme of ‘love in spite of,'” said Joi McMillon, who once again divided the editing of scenes with Nat Sanders, following their Oscar-nominated “Moonlight” (the first distinction for an African-American woman). “In ‘Moonlight,’ in spite of [Chiron’s] circumstances and surroundings, he’s able to find love and watch it grow.

"If Beale Street Could Talk"

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

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Read More:Brian Tyree Henry Is the Year’s Best Supporting Actor, Which Makes Him an Unlikely Nominee

“In ‘Beale Street,’ in spite of the injustice that has been handed to [Tish and Fonny], they are still supported by a loving family and the bond between them strengthens over time. The tricky part was playing with when to be in the past and when to be in the present…We emphasized that this was Tish’s memory. So early on, we did a second pass where we specifically looked for places to come in and out through Tish’s point of view.”

For Sanders, one of the high points was editing the scene in which Tish and Fonny finally discover their dream home after being rejected time and again by racist landlords. While the scene was shot as one long take, Sanders opted not to step on James’ performance. As Fonny uses his imagination to convince Tish that the vast warehouse could work as their apartment, he’s aided by compassionate landlord, Levy (Dave Franco). The two men even humor Tish by pretending to carry their fridge to the optimal spot.

“That was actually the first day of shooting,” said Sanders. Discovering the location in the first place was also a happy accident, which inspired Jenkins to write the scene about Fonny’s devotion to Tish. “I was surprised by how much of the space you saw in your mind,” Sanders added. “It was just a lot of panning, really. Over here will be the couch, and over there will be the bed, and over here will be the dining table.

(l to r.) Actor Stephan James, director Barry Jenkins, and actor KiKi Layne on the set of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Barry Jenkins on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

“As the editor, watching dailies, you’re always trying to anticipate how an audience is going to perceive this, and, as I was watching this with the imagination of seeing it all in Fonny’s head, it just grabbed me. And so I stepped back and didn’t try to cut it up because it really worked in that oner.”

The high point for McMillon was editing the powerful and prophetic male bonding sequence between Fonny and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who divulges his terrifying incarceration. It serves as a brilliant companion piece to the diner sequence in “Moonlight.”

“One of the things that I love about this scene is the vulnerability that both actors were not afraid to reveal,” said McMillon. “And this allowed the audience to get a peek into what it’s like to be a black man in America during that time. The fear and aggravation and frustration is something that a lot of people equate with just being angry and black. But there’s an origin of where that emotion comes from, the constant oppression and one step forward, two steps back that black men face. The time that we took to settle in and put people in these shoes helps them feel kind of hopeless.”

"If Beale Street Could Talk"Stephan James as Fonny, KiKi Layne as Tish, and Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty star in Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Stephan James, KiKi Layne and Brian Tyree Henry in “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

The entire scene was shot with traditional coverage, but then Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton put the camera on a slider to pan back and forth for three takes between the actors to create a greater sense of intimacy. “When I saw those three takes, I [groaned],” McMillon said. “I had a feeling that’s what Barry was gonna want to use. And that made it much harder to cut because in those moments you don’t want to feel the edits. So it was a very delicate process. Where I found the moments to cut was being on the right person at the right time, even staying on the actor for a reaction.”

It also helped that Laxton divided the lighting into three parts during the sequence to differentiate day, evening, and night. This also inspired McMillon to progressively move in tighter on Fonny and Daniel. “It feels like you’re peeling back layers and getting closer,” she said.

And then Tish appears and changes the dynamic. The men start joking around and lightening the mood, until she goes into the kitchen to make dinner. “Then she returns again to bring them out of how dark the conversation has gotten,” McMillon said. “And just for a moment, they have that lovely meal together. And, again, it becomes that common theme of ‘love in spite of.’ They can still celebrate each other and have a good time. The common thing in the black community is we know how to have a good time.”

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