While Barry Jenkins was writing the screenplay for Moonlight, which ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, he was also working on an adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, a 1974 James Baldwin novel to which he didn’t yet have the rights. (He secured them following his Oscars triumph, and the film comes out November 30.) It’s easy to see why the projects were connected in his mind: Both tell the story of tender young love holding fast through oppressive social conditions. Both, Jenkins tells me, “speak to whatever it feels like to be a black person in America.” And both are intimately tied to an American city.
Whereas Moonlight was filmed in the Miami city blocks where Jenkins grew up, Beale Street takes place in Baldwin’s birthplace of Harlem, with excursions into the author’s Greenwich Village stomping grounds. The challenge for Jenkins was to portray ’70s Harlem—a setting far removed from his own experience— honestly and humanely, without succumbing to clichés of the city’s gritty old days.
“Harlem was thought of as one of the darker, rougher neighborhoods of the city, and yet Baldwin spins it in this way that our main character, Tish, feels more comfortable there than in the Village,” Jenkins says.
Despite decades of gentrification and the arrival of sceney bars and restaurants and condos, enough of the iconic old brownstones remained to allow Jenkins to shoot most of the Harlem scenes in situ, using some judicious framing and a few cosmetic alterations, such as turning green street signs yellow. (Cinematic time travel to other Manhattan neighborhoods wasn’t so seamless; scenes set in Little Italy, for example, had to be shot in the Bronx.) And rather than shooting all his interiors on a soundstage, Jenkins and his team remodeled a few apartments to period-appropriate specifications. “People would see us working, and they’d walk by with a smile,” Jenkins says, “because they would see the children playing on the sidewalk in our frames, and it reminded them of the Harlem that was.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until Jenkins added the human element that the picture came together for him. “There was one day where we filmed a very simple scene, where two characters meet on the sidewalk,” he recalls. “We had all these extras there, and we had a few period cars, and there was this older couple in front of me who’ve lived there the majority of their lives and been married for over 40 years. They were in period costume, standing by this period car, and I just had this rush of emotion because it was like seeing into a time capsule.” At that moment, after existing only as text, Baldwin’s world had become for him “a living, breathing thing.”