Rewind to 2016. I remember scrolling through YouTube, late at night under my covers, trying not to let too much light escape. I stumbled upon a trailer for “Moonlight” and from the thumbnail, I had an inkling that it was something special. I clicked on it. The music clenched the tiny space between my soul and my beating heart, which I didn’t realize was aching so much. Aching for painful beauty and art that dared to represent me. With every shot of the trailer, my life was getting closer and closer to a new direction. Every note in the music alluding to my new destiny. It was as if the trailer whispered to me, “You haven’t been living until right this moment. Congratulations. Now get ready. Who you are is about to change.” I’ve never cried from a trailer before. It was that night that I became obsessed. I researched every actor, knew them all by heart (still do), watched every interview, and found a new favorite director: Barry Jenkins. Little did I know I would get to interview him in just a few years.
Barry Jenkins career has taken off, skyrocketing into the atmosphere of America’s most respected filmmakers. His movies often blur the line between the art of film and the beauty and lessons in everyday life. His Best Picture Oscar-winning “Moonlight” did that and more which is why people have been anticipating his next film, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
The new film, which debuted in Atlanta on Christmas Day, is an adaptation of the James Baldwin book of the same name. The story finds the balance between the gentleness of love and the fragility of rage as Fonny, Stephan James’ character falls in love with Tish played by Kiki Layne. The manifestation of their love: an on-the-way baby boy, falls at the middle line between these two characters’ unconditional love and dismay when Fonny is falsely accused of sexual assault, and placed behind bars indefinitely. Tish tries her best to sew her family together, but it’s the grace and poise of Regina King’s character, Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers, that provides the foundation on which her aching kin can rest. Colman Domingo’s character as Tish’s father Joseph Rivers, also provides an important element of simple paternal presence much needed in the black community right now. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is the second film in a long and fruitful career for Mr. Jenkins, and every actor he sculpts for display. First, VOX ATL interviewed Colman Domingo and Kiki Layne at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta, then we headed over to Barry Jenkins in the adjacent hotel suite.
VOX ATL: What would you say to some of my friends who haven’t been exposed to art like this, what would you say to them?
Colman Domingo: There’s a wonderful challenge here, when it comes to our narratives and our story. If you liked “Girls Trip,” if you loved “Black Panther,” to trust that this movie is actually for you. You didn’t know you needed this film, and that this film is also part of that trajectory of how we express and show our lives and our fullness. We’re not just superheroes and we’re not just rolling necks. We’re all of it! And all of it has a place in showing our story.
Kiki Layne: And I mean it’s also two young people. I’m playing a 19-year-old, and Stephan’s character is 22. So it is about these two young people, growing up, growing together, growing apart, growing in love. You see how they deal with their friends, how they deal with their family. So I think, it would actually be a great movie for younger audiences to see. And also, you’re being introduced to James Baldwin.
VOX ATL: What advice do you have for people trying to push into this industry?
Kiki Layne: The most important piece of advice is to trust the journey that you are on. Be mindful of how much you are comparing yourself to other people and their journeys. Everything happens in due time, for you according to what is best for you and actually serves you best. So that’s my advice.
In the days before this interview with Barry Jenkins, I didn’t feel like I was completely in my body. Part of me was present, the other still under my covers, tearing up at the beauty of real filmmaking. I don’t think this was a coincidence. I was meant to interview this man, just like I was meant to watch that “Moonlight” trailer, and metamorphosize after every scene of the movie. Standing outside his hotel room, I could hear the flurries of laughter just a few feet away. His voice was exactly how it was in every interview, and at the Oscars. I couldn’t stop shaking. This wasn’t a coincidence. How often do people get to interview the director who changed their lives? When it was finally time to enter the room, I made eye contact with him, and I stopped shaking. Looking into his eyes, he humbled himself for me. I could see he was tired, and I then realized I must’ve been one of many, many interviews for him today. But nevertheless, he looked at me, and it was as if his eyes were saying “It’s OK. Time is moving, let’s catch it, watch it glow and after a while, release it. Take a seat.” And after a few exchanges of laughter, the questions started, and I felt equal.
VOXATL: The first time Fonny and Tish get intimate with each other, the way that the shot was made, there was almost a halo around the two. It’s a really beautiful scene. It’s so symbolic of how in this film, there’s so much that they’re juggling, the love, and also the sin, and trying to keep everything pure. Can you talk about the balance of all those things?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it’s like when you read a book and there’s all this interior life that you’ve put into it, as where you watch a film you don’t have all those things. Like the narration, the voice over, things like that. When you read the book what you do feel is just this tenderness, you do feel the delicate nature of everything that’s happening. You feel almost this duality, and as you said, there is an act of sin in a certain way, and Fonny’s mom even says outright “That child is born of sin.” And yet the act itself is so pure, and so delicate, that it was, I feel like it was my job to find a way to visually present it in a very frank way, but preserve the feeling of that, you know? Especially between this film and “Moonlight” which are both adaptations, and because literature is such a different medium than cinema, a large part of my job is to find a visual way, to keep the energy of the source material. The way you describe the scene is exactly how it functions in the book and how I hoped it would function in the film as well.
VOX ATL: I’m with VOX ATL which is for teenagers, and all of my friends, whether they realize it or not, they want to tell stories, they want to have their voice heard, but there’s not always an opportunity to have an audience to do so and sometimes it can be hard. What advice would you give to people trying to get their stories out?
Barry Jenkins: This is gonna sound terrible but it’s honest. The most productive moments in my life have been when I was at that lonely place. I made my first feature for $12,000 because I was really lonely. I went to Europe in 2013, and wrote a film that won Best Picture because I was brutally lonely, and I needed to access something in my creative life. I made that first film with a crew of four people. It’s possible to feel like there’s this deep well of just impenetrable loneliness, but there were always four people who had my back. The only thing you said that I disagree with is that there’s not an audience. With my first film, I thought, nobody’s gonna watch “Moonlight.” When that [awards] s**t started, I was shocked. I realized that that was a falsehood I had placed on myself. You saying there’s no audience is a falsehood you’re placing on yourself. The danger of that is that you start to believe it and you start to get discouraged from making the work.
As the interview wrapped up, I didn’t want to leave. And just like watching that “Moonlight” trailer two years ago, I felt an irresistible urge to create. What can I do with this power?
This movie will heal your spirit, it’ll make you remember how painful raw beauty can be, and it’ll make you want to read James Baldwin. As Colman Domingo said in our interview, “You didn’t know you needed this film.” When the film opens in Atlanta on December 25, go see “If Beale Street Could Talk” and feel it’s lingering loveliness.