'I'm a black storyteller telling a black story – that's progress'

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Barry Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk has three Oscar nods at this year’s Academy Awards.

While it’s not a patch on the eight nominations his acclaimed film Moonlight received in 2017, the 39-year-old director isn’t fazed.

“There’s only five slots, and for me to see it as a snub would mean that I see my work as being more worthy than someone else’s and I never think of it that way.

“I wish we could have 30 slots and just celebrate everyone… I just feel very fortunate to be in the conversation at all.

“Even having won best picture with Moonlight, I try not to let that affect my relationship with my own work.”

Image: Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based on a 1974 novel by James Baldwin

And the American filmmaker is clearly not just spinning a pre-planned line, he values his craft more than the glitz and glamour such accolades can bring.

But he admits that winning an Academy Award has increased the number of eyes on his follow-up film. He said: “It piles on the attention, that’s for sure.”

More on this story

Two years ago Moonlight took home three Oscars.

Jenkins' film Moonlight won three Oscars in 2017

Image: Jenkins’ film Moonlight won three Oscars in 2017

The presentation of the best picture award – overseen by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty – became the most memorable Oscar moment to date when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.

Jenkins has since described it as “an out-of-body-experience”.

But back to his latest work.

Kiki Layne plays Tish Rivers

Image: Kiki Layne plays Tish Rivers

Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a young black couple living in Harlem, whose lives are torn apart by a false accusation of rape.

The story brings together two seemingly disparate themes – love and injustice.

The film’s miscarriage of justice is dealt out to Fonny Hunt, played by Canadian actor Stephan James, who is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Fonny Hunt plays Stephan James, who is jailed for a crime he did not commit

Image: Fonny Hunt plays Stephan James, who is jailed for a crime he did not commit

James says his inspiration for the role was a Bronx teen called Kalief Browder who in 2011 was accused of stealing a backpack in New York and spent three years in jail while awaiting trial.

He was never convicted of a crime, and took his own life two years after being released.

When I ask the actor if the same thing could happen today, he tells me: “1000%. It’s telling I didn’t have to look back to the 1970s to see who I could base this character on… quite frankly I could have looked back to yesterday and found some example.

“The reality is it’s happening far too often in the US and it’s time to speak up.”

Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins: We should see more black love stories

James says his aim was “to bring a level of humanity to these men who never get their stories told”.

While not denying there’s still a long way to go, Jenkins has a more positive take on the current social situation.

“I think we’ve made a tonne of progress in certain ways. For someone like me to be centred in the way I was with Moonlight, and the way I have with this film – as a black storyteller telling a very black story – I think that’s a symbol of progress.

“But I think we have to consider progress a direction not a destination. To say, ‘Oh Moonlight won best picture, now it’s all done, let’s pack it all up, progress is here’, would be a gross mistake. We have to keep checking in three years, five years from now to see if the progress we feel we see in the present day really has taken hold.”

Jenkins, left, with If Beale Street Could Talk stars Regina King, KiKi Lane and Stephen James

Image: Jenkins, left, with If Beale Street Could Talk stars Regina King, KiKi Layne and Stephen James

And as for the romance in the film?

With a largely black cast, including two African-American leads at the heart of a love story, the film is a rarity in Hollywood.

Jenkins says it’s merely a case of cinema finally catching up with culture.

He tells me: “There are millions of black babies born every year, and those black babies are born out of love. So, ipso facto, we should see more of these black love stories. For me, all I can do is not be concerned about filling the vacuum and just try to do the best I can to tell these stories in the way they demand to be told.”

The film is the story of a young black couple whose lives are torn apart by a false accusation of rape.

Image: The film is the story of a young black couple whose lives are torn apart by a false accusation of rape.

James agrees: “It’s crazy that in 2019 we say, wow, this looks different (a black love story), but we never get to see it.

“Part of the appeal of being in a film like this was understanding that this idea of black love doesn’t exist because we never see it ever.

“To show black people as more than lovers, more than best friends, to show them as true soul mates – there’s real power in that.

“I’m happy to bring something like that to the screen.”

And despite actors clamouring to work with him, and numerous awards, Jenkins remains modest about his achievements.

If Beale Street Could Talk is set in New York

Image: If Beale Street Could Talk is set in New York

He said: “One of the things I love about writing films and writing screenplays is it’s a very humbling process.

“No matter how many awards you have behind or ahead of you a blank page is a blank page. In that sense it’s quite grounding.”

Going back to the three Oscar nominations the film has received (best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay and best original music score), Jenkins is clear.

“This idea of snubs would mean that I have an expectation of wanting or deserving something. Once I get to that point then I’m going to be separated from what’s really important which is to create the best work that I can.”

If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas on Friday.

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