Barry Jenkins Explains How He Found James Baldwin’s ‘Beale Street’ in a Rapidly Changing Harlem

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast Ep. 74: The “Moonlight" director talks about the different approach he took shooting the first James Baldwin adaption.
(l to r.) Teyonah Parris as Ernestine, KiKi Layne as Tish, and Regina King as Sharon star in Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

When Brian Tyree Henry, a Harlem resident, was working with his Miami-native director Barry Jenkins on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the actor noticed an irony: If Jenkins panned the camera just a few degrees, he could get the neighborhood’s Whole Foods in the shot. Author James Baldwin’s neighborhood had changed quite a bit since the great Harlem photographers, like Roy DeCarava, had taken the photos Jenkins and his team were using as historical references.

For anyone shooting a period piece in New York City, the process often requires traveling deeper into the outer boroughs to find areas that haven’t undergone the rapid re-development that Harlem has experienced over the last three decades. Jenkins had his heart set on staying in Harlem, but he had started to accept the reality that the River’s home – the setting for a number of longer key scenes, which established the close family bond the film rests on – might need to be a set they built.

Nevertheless, production designer Mark Friedberg didn’t give up the hunt, and started to reach out to the developers who were responsible for so much of the rapid change.

“Mark had this really wonderful idea, he was like, ‘We could build this on a soundstage,'” recalled Jenkins, when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “But I found this house, the guy is going to flip it anyway, we’ll gut it and we’ll build ‘our set.'”

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It was a brownstone near 135th street where a family had lived for 50 years. The developer who bought it was about to start process of gutting, renovating, and “flipping” the house for big money, but Friedberg asked if he would mind slightly delaying his plans and renting it to the “Beale Street” production for few months first.

“And the cherry on top,” said Jenkins, “was that Mark was so smart: ‘You can tell people a James Baldwin adaptation was filmed here.’ Boom.”

Friedberg and his team could excavate all the period from the building by giving the Rivers home an authenticity, but they were also able to gut it and turn it into the expressive set that the film required. “The second floor became our set, first floor for production, third floor for actors,” said Jenkins. “It became became our home for a couple weeks of production.”

While on the podcast, Jenkins also talked about the vastly different approach he took to capturing Baldwin’s Harlem than he did his own hometown in “Moonlight,” crafting a visual language that was partly grounded in historical research, as well as the 1950s Hollywood melodramas, and the unique challenges and opportunities that were involved with adapting Baldwin.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music.

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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