Barry Jenkins, the writer-director of “Moonlight” and the newly released “If Beale Street Could Talk,” might not have a career were it not for the advice he received from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Oscar-winning filmmaker said Thursday night.
“’Moonlight’ and ‘Beale Street’ would not exist without Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Jenkins said during an appearance at a packed Senator theater, in the course of a post-film discussion with the Baltimore native.
Recounting a discussion he had with Coates about 10 years ago, Jenkins recalled some unsolicited advice. ““I’ll never forget — we were sitting there talking, you got real quiet, and you put your hand on me and said, ‘You’ve got to get out of here,’ ” Jenkins said.
“I said, ‘What?’ … And you said, ‘You have to get out of here, you have to go somewhere and tell your story. You have to get out of the country, get far away, stop everything. You’ve got to just do it.’ ”
Taking his advice, Jenkins headed to Europe to clear his head. While there, he said, he wrote the first drafts of both “Moonlight” and “Beale Street.”
Just two years after “Moonlight” was a surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar — especially surprising, given that the winner was first announced as “La La Land,” with the real winner announced following a frantic onstage scramble — “If Beale Street Could Talk” is also generating serious Oscar buzz. Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, the story of a young woman, Tish, and her family struggling to prove that her fiancee, Fonny, has been unjustly jailed on rape charges, was nominated for three Golden Globes. Regina King won for her supporting performance as Tish’s mom.
In the course of a discussion that lasted about 30 minutes, Coates praised Jenkins for bringing a new sort of black experience to audiences, both in terms of the stories he tells and the images he puts on the screen.
“I have never seen anybody shoot black people the way Barry Jenkins shoots black people,” Coates said, praising the 39-year-old filmmaker for the “lushness and the beauty that you bestow on black people that we are not used to seeing.”
For his part, Jenkins gave much of the credit to his cinematographer, James Laxton, as well as to digital technology that is better able to photograph black skin. But even beyond that, he said, he cares for his characters and is determined to let their natural beauty shine through.
As an example, Jenkins noted that Tish, portrayed by actor KiKi Layne in her film debut, in his view “is a princess who becomes a queen.” And he was determined to put images on the screen that reinforced that interpretation.
Coates also asked Jenkins about the film’s hopeful ending, which differs from Baldwin’s. “Did you worry,” Coates asked, “that you might be slighting the very damaging effects” of the sort of oppression that is a key theme of Baldwin’s story?
Jenkins said he wrestled with that question, and in fact shot a different ending more in line with the original (“It’ll be on the DVD,” he promised). But ultimately, Jenkins said, he had to end the film in a way that was true to his instincts as a storyteller.
“To leave the audience in that place, I couldn’t do it,” he said. Ultimately, he said, he wanted to leave audiences with a message of hope, and “that hope is the strength of the black family.”