Film shines light on US society

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in a scene from If Beale Street Could Talk. Photo: Supplied
KiKi Layne and Stephan James in a scene from If Beale Street Could Talk. Photo: Supplied
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of a James Baldwin novel provides another perspective on America’s troubles, writes Mark Olsen.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk shines a new light on issues of race in the US, showing how little things have changed.

Q You capture the language and feeling of Baldwin so well. Was that in some ways your main goal in the adaptation?

A It was my main goal, the feeling of reading Baldwin was something I wanted to preserve in the experience of the film. And what was really cool about this process, as opposed to Moonlight, was it had time to reveal itself. After writing the first draft it would be another four-and-a-half, five years before actually making the film, so it was nice to take the story from a literary form into screenplay form and then over time allow the screenplay itself to evolve further and further away from the source material. And where we ended up, I think, was with something that was distinct and whole unto itself.

Q The story of the movie is focused on the love story. Is that what it is to you? In part I'm asking because the times are so difficult right now and there is something very hopeful about the movie and I don't know if you were making it with the moment in mind. It's a feeling people need, a love story for troubled times.

A I think that for me the love story was incredibly crucial to the book and the film, but I think also the more serious, the social issues towards which Mr Baldwin was speaking were just as important. I think what it required was an approach that's almost more like chemistry and less like literature or art. More science than art. Some elements have a greater density and so you need less of them to arrive at parity. To me, it felt like the love story could rule the day. That's the primary skeleton, the primary prism through which we're experiencing the film. But the elements of systemic injustice, mass incarceration, those are just as important. I think finding parity wasn't about 50-50 screen time, and that the love story would be the best way to tell the story.

Q Were you thinking about our times as you were making the movie? What does this story have to say to right now?

A I was thinking about it, and I felt like allowing the book and the film to remain set in the period that it was written was a much more constructive way to shine a light on how little has changed from then to now. The book poses so many of these issues that are still relevant right now. Policing, sentencing, so many things about the judicial process, these bedrocks of American society have been disproportionately antagonistic to certain people and I think that you don't have to look very hard in the headlines to see. Just in the last three or four months, the 2nd Amendment has been something that we've all been talking about and yet there have been so many times where a black man either in a law enforcement position or a security position or in an open-carry state has been gunned down for merely holding a firearm. The 2nd Amendment is an inalienable right for some people, but not for all. So I think Mr Baldwin was speaking about, again, density, chemistry, you don't have to have a story that's overwrought with these issues for these issues to be a part of the narrative. And I think that the place that we arrived at in telling this story, it's a manifestation of life, of love and hope and family, but it doesn't shy away from the very real obstacles that certain people face in this country. And continue to face since 45 years ago when this book was published. - TCA


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