Rome: Barry Jenkins on How Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates Influenced 'Beale Street'

Courtesy of TIFF
'If Beale Street Could Talk'

The Academy Award-winning filmmaker says his new series 'The Underground Railroad' will be unlike anything ever before seen on television.

Barry Jenkins’ new film If Beale Street Could Talk is the first big-screen English-language adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. The film played at Rome Film Fest this week after its September world premiere in Toronto. Italian critics raved about the film, adding to the chorus of Oscar buzz surrounding Jenkins’ follow-up to his best picture winner, Moonlight.

KiKi Layne stars in Beale Street, set in 1970s Harlem, as Tish Rivers, a young woman engaged to a sculptor, Fonny, played by Stephan James. After Fonny is set up by a racist cop and sent to jail for a crime he didn't commit, Tish finds out she is pregnant with his child, and she must fight to exonerate Fonny before the child is born.

“I think what Mr. Baldwin was trying to speak to in his book was this idea that black people have had very, very difficult lives going back to the history, the foundation of America, and probably the foundation of the world,” said Jenkins in Rome. “And yet somehow, despite all this pain and suffering that we’ve had to endure, we still have joy, we still have love, and we still celebrate beauty despite that suffering. And I think in that joy, that celebration of life and beauty, we somehow find the strength to survive.”

Jenkins was influenced by one contemporary writer in his approach to Baldwin. “Ta-Nehisi Coates, he’s kind of like the new James Baldwin, he wrote about his feeling for black parents that when a black child is born that child is born in danger, that child is legitimately born into danger,” said Jenkins. “And so it’s a natural instinct for the family to feel like, rather than giving the child freedom to go out, they have to protect that child. And I hadn’t seen that in a film expressed in a very clear way.”

“And again, for the whole entire course of American history, black people have been under duress,” he continued. “And I think the reason why black people were still present and, hell, [one] was just the president of this country, is because of this protective instinct.”

Jenkins also wanted to rewrite the common narrative of how African-American families are frequently shown in film and TV. “I think the sad part in this big, shocking thing to see is that we’ve been presenting images of black people that show that they don’t care about their children,” he said. “And that is just not the case. So I’m glad to have found this book, to put imagery into the world that counters that lie.”

In terms of the relevance of the film today, Jenkins spoke of the damage of putting up more and more borders between people and between nations. He referenced a scene in which a character, Levy, played by Dave Franco, attempts to connect with the young couple. Levy says simply, “I’m just my mother’s son.”

For Jenkins, recalling Tupac’s famous “Keep Ya Head Up” lyric, “since we all came from a woman,” this line is not about “us versus them” in terms of race, but simply about people who have received nurturing and people who haven’t.

“The people who have not received nurturing, they put up borders, they put up walls, they have homophobia, they suffer from racism,” he said. “But the people who have received proper nurturing, I think they see that we’re all fundamentally the same. And so I think we all have to just get in rooms like this and watch things and talk about them and hopefully realize that these borders that we’re putting up between us are forcing us to hate both one another and ourselves.”

Jenkins is currently writing another adaptation, a TV series he’ll also direct based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Underground Railroad. “That book, in particular, is about a hero’s journey,” said Jenkins. “The hero just happens to be a black woman born into slavery. I haven’t seen that story told before.”