an interview with Barry Jenkins

Like everyone else, I discovered Barry Jenkins in 2016 with the release of Moonlight, a film of staggering beauty that tells the story of a young African-American from the ghetto dealing with his homosexuality.

What struck me in this movie, as in Moonlight is the new image of black men that Barry Jenkins shows us: sensitive, vulnerable, tender, faithful lovers and good fathers too. Far, very far indeed from the usual images of black men as badass, bad boys, losers, and so on.

If Beale Street Could Talk is being released in France at the end of January, right before the Oscars. Barry Jenkins’s new film is a lyrical rendering of the James Baldwin novel of the same title. It is the love story of Fonny and Tish, a young African-American couple from Harlem forced to engage in a battle against police violence and injustice.

So when I had the chance to meet Barry on his trip to Paris, the conversation turned to masculinity, black men, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, and the oneness of body and soul.

Barry Jenkins

In your films, you redefine the image of black masculinity. Is this an intentional choice?

(he starts by saying, no) It’s not a conscious decision because it’s not the point, you know. Especially with these two films which I can’t take full credit for, because the characters, the scenarios both come from other people.[1] My job is just to reflect and amplify what they primarily built in the narrative. (he admits, when I point it out, that this is not something we see often on the screen) True. But to me it is not about countering the narrative, it’s not about giving an opposite presentation of black masculinity, as much as it is giving an authentic view of what it’s like. People keep talking to me about this idea of innocence and tenderness in the hearts and souls of black men. Those things have been elements I’ve always known to exist within black men but, you’re right, I don’t see them often in the images that we receive. So I will change my answer. Yes it is a conscious decision.

In mainstream cinema, black men have often been reduced to their bodies. You too film these bodies but you add some soul.

This is what I was going to say because I am also visually concerned with the bodies. I am. But I think of the bodies as a vase that carries the soul. I think the problem has been with visually depicting the body and leaving the soul out of the image. In Moonlight and Beale Street it’s about showing how these two things work hand in hand. Moonlight is very much a male film. It’s the male point of view. Beale Street is the opposite. It’s the female point of view except for two scenes: the one where you see Fonny and Daniel, two young black men, and the one at the bar where you see two adult black men. I do think the presentation of the bodies is very particular in both those scenes. But you’re absolutely right, it’s a very conscious decision to also present their souls in a way that gives another level of interiority.

In one of the scenes you just referred to, Fonny’s friend Daniel talks of his traumatic experience in prison after being wrongly convicted. He doesn’t say it overtly, but we understand that he was raped. Fear is a strong presence in this scene.

Yes, but not immediately though, because in the beginning of the scene this is the masculinity that we know: “Hey, wassup buddy? How are you doing?” Very loud, cracking jokes. That’s how masculinity wants to present itself.  But over the course of time you see that it’s just the surface. This fear, this trauma, have been buried beneath. So this 12-minute scene – and 12 minutes is a long time in any film – is really about how men can give themselves the space to look past the surface and acknowledge the fear and the trauma.

How can you be a man when you live in constant fear? Doesn’t this have a disempowering effect?

Well, you could apply the same to women. Women live in constant fear of violence from men. In Beale Street you can see that the men don’t interact with the system. It’s the women who go to visit Fonny in prison, who go to see the lawyer. This is what Mr. Baldwin said in a certain way: just the proximity to the law is going to get you snatched into it, which is what we see happen with Fonny. Black masculinity, when allowed to present itself in its full form, is seen as a threat. So there is this fear, this denial. “I’m going to keep my energy bottled up because I’m only one encounter away from being destroyed by the system.” But that energy has to go somewhere. Unfortunately it is unleashed on the women, which is a very dark thing.

As a black man living in the United States have you personally experienced this fear?

(the reply is instantaneous) Of course! You know, we were doing a Q&A in New York. It was myself, Stephan James (Fonny) and Bryan Tyree Henry (Daniel) and Bryan said something that scared the sh… out of me. He said: 1 in 3 black men will spend time in prison. There are 3 black men on the stage. 1 of us will spend time in prison. That’s a very harsh reality. So yes, I have felt that.

You have often cited Claire Denis as one of your influences. She is one of the first filmmakers in France to have filmed black men in all their complexity. How do you relate to her work?

I discovered Claire, I was in film school. I first saw Vendredi Soir and then Beau Travail and Chocolat. Everything you said about her is what I fell in love with. It’s not even just applicable to black men or the African experience. We’ve been talking of the bodies… Claire, even if she rapturizes the body, she’s always been very clear about understanding and expressing that the body also contains the soul. You can’t study one and not acknowledge the other.

What I also love about Claire… (he pauses) I hope she won’t kill me for saying this, is that she has often worked towards very complex metaphors but with very simple concrete elements. I realized this is what I want to do. Because again, the body of black men typically has been so clear on the surface but we forget that it is very complex underneath.

I speak to him of Liberty City, the black ghetto of Miami where I lived for a few months when I was adapting Valérie Tong Cuong’s novel Où je suis into a screenplay set in the United States. He was pleasantly surprised and asked me if I was Haitian. The Little Haiti neighborhood is right next to Liberty City.

When you were growing up in Liberty city, did you already know that you wanted to be in filmmaker.

I never wanted to be a filmmaker when I was in Miami. I had this life for twenty years that was very marginal. And then, I left Miami and went to Florida State University. That was the only college I could afford to go to. It was free. Big public university. Not a good school. Not the elite. That’s where the average kids go, you know.

I realized very quickly that all the other kids were from places very different than Liberty City. They were from the suburbs, little America. I was one of the three black kids in the film school. So I knew that my voice was different from theirs. They were all making things in the same way, this very Hollywood way. And I knew that the Hollywood way of making films wasn’t going to be a good fit for my voice. So I thought what else is there? And that was when I discovered Wong Kar-Wai, Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Godard. So I look at the films I’ve made now. It’s my signature but it’s got Claire’s DNA, it’s got Wong Kar-Wai’s DNA, it’s got Jean-Luc Godard’s DNA.

How would you explain this new wave of black filmmakers in the United States ?

I think it’s a few things. The biggest thing to me is the technology. For the longest time, cinema was the art form of the elite because it was so expensive. But now, with digital technology, with the cameras becoming smaller and more affordable, there are just more people who are teaching themselves how to make films. And because they are teaching themselves how to make films their voices are more distinct, more unique. And there are just more of us.
All 3 of my feature films were made on digital camera. I’m not Spike Lee. I don’t even know if I could have done what Spike did. I don’t know how he found a way to make all these movies, on film, so expensive, and he is essentially the only one. He did it year after year after year. I couldn’t have done that. And I didn’t have to do that because I don’t have to look far to get inspiration from people who look like me. This year alone there is my film, The Hate You Give, Black Panther, Black Klansmann, Sorry to Bother You. You can even consider Spiderman. And none of them are alike. So none of us has to carry the weight of all the blackness, which Spike Lee for years had carried.

At that point, the press attaché pokes her head through the door. We’ve gone over the time allotted. Barry gets up and darts over to the coffee they’ve brought him. We exchange a few more words about the TV series he’s doing for Amazon, an 11- episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad. When I wish him good luck for the French release of If Beale Street Could Talk, he chuckles and, then, suddenly serious, he exclaims: “Yes, I hope the film will touch the masses!
I hope so too.

My thanks to Yannick Mertens, Afrotopia for having made this meeting possible.

Fonny, Kiki and Daniel in If Beale Street Could Talk

Also read my column in the Huffington Place about black masculinity on screen.

[1] Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney,In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. As, indicated above, If Beale Street could talk is based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name.