When Moonlight, adapted and directed by Barry Jenkins, became first a critical smash, then a slow-burn, word-of-mouth box office hit, before picking up three Academy Awards including Best Picture in 2017, all eyes were on the filmmaker. Where would he go next?
He went to a novel by writer and intellectual powerhouse James Baldwin, whose If Beale Street Could Talk chronicles young love set against police racism in Harlem has remained all-too relevant since it was first published in 1974. At its heart is young, sensitive sculptor Fonny, who is fitted up by a corrupt police officer on a false rape charge, just as his childhood sweetheart and soulmate Tish discovers she is pregnant.
Rising star Stephan James, who played Jesse Owens in 2016 biopic Race, pioneering Congressman John Lewis in Selma and was last seen opposite Julia Roberts in Amazon Prime’s excellent Homecoming, gives a fine central performance as Fonny.
The Big Issue: So a script lands on your desk based on a James Baldwin novel, adapted and directed by the hottest filmmaker on the planet. What is your response?
Stephen James: First of all, the marriage of Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin really excited me. Then you read it and realise just how beautiful this story is. It is very much a love story, but a love story like no other I have seen in the cinema, in terms of black love. It feels important. And it feels beautiful and timely – I guess it is everything I hoped it would be and some.
Black love is this thing that is in existence but we don’t get to see it in this way.
How much of Baldwin’s work had you read?
I hadn’t read the book, but went back to it right after I read the screenplay. I wasn’t too familiar with Baldwin’s work – I knew him as an activist and as a poet. I had seen videos of him but had not known his writing. It was so useful to us actors to have his book as source material. Baldwin puts so much on the page in terms of what these characters are feeling. He is very descriptive in his language. And for me that meant the world.
You say you had never seen black love depicted like this
Black love is this thing that is in existence but we don’t get to see it in this way. Never. This film feels revolutionary because you have a young black couple who are not just lovers, they are true soul mates. And they have been since they were children. To see what that aspect of love looks like, to see the different aspects of the black family and what that can look like is so important.
In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins depicted a new kind of black masculinity – does he continues this in Beale Street?
When had you ever seen a story about black queer love? You hadn’t, and that is the truth. Barry Jenkins entered into uncharted territory with Moonlight. Look at what society tells us black masculinity supposed to look like. To see it depicted so differently in this film, with Fonny is a deeply emotional guy who loves very hard and has a real brotherhood with his friend Daniel? This is so important. For one, it teaches young men that it is ok to share your feelings and express them with your brothers.
We are men who are scared. We are humans. These young men get written off as a statistic – one in three black men are going to be incarcerated by the age of 40. These films are revolutionary because we have never been able to see the truth of what these men look like. Barry Jenkins could have gone away and done any film he wanted after Moonlight. It says a lot that he came to do this little film in Harlem.
He could have easily gone straight to the lovemaking.
The pacing of Jenkins’s films is so unusual – and something magic happens at the slower speed – we see the heart and love in the spaces between the words
Absolutely. He is not afraid of the moment, he is not afraid of letting things be, letting us live with things in real time and carrying a message without saying anything at all. He is one of the best at that. I have learned a lot of patience from Barry. Everything he does has meaning, so you pick up on the subtle nuances of how Fonny and Tish look at each other, how they talk to each other, the way he undresses her – it is all very intentional, very purposeful. It is great credit to Barry Jenkins for not rushing those moments. He could have easily gone straight to the lovemaking.
This deep relationship between Fonny and Tish underpins the entire film – what were your discussions before filming with your co-star Kiki Layne?
We both understood the weight of the material and that this story would hinge on that relationship. If people don’t believe our relationship, you don’t have a movie. We were willing to do things strangers wouldn’t normally do out of a commitment to the material, understanding that we would have to let some walls down and be comfortable with each other. Barry created a safe space for us to be vulnerable, to try things and fail or look silly at times.
If the intense love story is the heart of the film, what about the intense violence, emotional and actual?
Baldwin has a way to speak to social injustices and things these young men were going through back then and are certainly going through today. I believe Baldwin wanted us to pay attention to how the love and the hope can get us through, as clichéd as it sounds, all these tragedies in this game of life where the African-American community has seemingly been dealt the worst hand. That is what this whole story is about.
Tell me about Kalief Browder, whose story helped shape your performance
Yeah, I based this portrayal on Kalief Browder who in 2010 was charged with petty theft of a backpack, a crime he didn’t commit. He was forced to spend three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial, two and a half years of which he spent in solitary confinement – a 16-year-old boy. You have to imagine the mental, physical, emotional trauma that he had to sustain. And just being able to look into Kalief’s eyes in the documentary, Time, and hear about his experiences. Like in the film, when Fonny says, “Do you have any idea what is happening to me in here?” You don’t have to see those things to know the pain and the horror. I look at Kalief’s face and see the pain, the horror, the fear.
You are not supposed to survive experiences like this. The worst part about this is that this is only one story.
To go through that at such a young age is barely imaginable
Ultimately these walls were put in place to physically and mentally to break these young men. You are not supposed to survive experiences like this. The worst part about this is that this is only one story. Kalief is one of a million, Fonny is one of a million, we are not going to see films being made about all of them. So to me, that is what Fonny represented, giving a voice to voiceless people who we will never see in the limelight. I didn’t want these guys to be written off as a statistic. I wanted to show they were human beings who had people they loved, families, people who loved them back and maybe children who were about to come into the world.
Has this story ever not been timely since it was written?
It is the unfortunate timelessness of Baldwin and the fact that he was so conscious to be able to explain these things, look at something that has seemingly been going on forever, but to find a way to do that underneath this beautiful love story.
He articulates rage in a beautiful way…
So you’ve played Jesse Owens (in Race), John Lewis (in Selma), now a Baldwin-Jenkins creation – where do you go from here?
I am 25 and feel like I am just scratching the surface, I want to do so much. I want to do comedies, I have just had the opportunity to do an action film I am really proud of called 17 Bridges, I want to continue to explore and grow. I want to play a superhero. So the bucket list is still long my friend.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in cinemas on February 8