Before our conversation even begins, Barry Jenkins coughs up an apology. It’s the day before his latest film opens in theaters— If Beale Street Could Talk , an adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel—and he’s in Philadelphia on business. It’s just past 10am, and the last corners of the city are rousing from slumber. “It’s a little loud where I’m at right now,” he tells me. “There’s a truck that won’t shut its engine off.” I’d never interacted with Jenkins before our chat, but the disclaimer seems typical of the Oscar-winning auteur.
Like his films, Jenkins comes across generous and genuine over the phone, someone who is quick to surrender compassion without the expectation of it in return. “I’m just a guy telling stories,” he tells me at one point, and though that may be true, those stories have opened up whole worlds on screen. Worlds that, in their innocence and their pain, greet us as true and revelatory. Jenkins, I like to believe, works with a futurist’s lens. He is an excavator of sorts, a worthy guide who graciously shows us existence—a people and their ways, how young boys learn to love, how families survive hardship—where there was none before it.
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His latest, Beale Street , unwraps around two young black lovers as they wrestle against the American justice system. A film of ethereal, near lyrical beauty, it takes place in a period not unlike ours today: Fonny ( Homecoming ’s Stephan James) is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit after police coerce a rape victim into picking him out of a lineup. Newly pregnant, Tish (KiKi Layne) works to free Fonny before their child is born. For Jenkins, the film places a light on how little difference there is between the contemporary moment and the divided era Baldwin wrote about in the early ’70s. It’s about more than that, too—about something deeper and deeply potent. He wanted to portray what he calls “this idea of the possibility of an extremely pure, resonant black love—and that love has the power to protect, to heal these black lives.”
Hurtling backward and forward in time, Beale Street carries the imprint of Jenkins’s signature touch: it stares the truth in the eye, and doesn’t once blink. “The world is tough, and it always has been,” he says. “And it seems like what’s ahead of us is gonna be even tougher. I am often, when I’m creating these things, I’m trying to find a way to open up, at the very least, a new point of view or alter a different perspective in a certain way.”
Jenkins belongs to a class of creators—Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and Donald Glover among them—who have contributed to a moment that, in many ways, feels like a new, necessary summit in black artistry. “Right now,” Jenkins says, “there’s just so many storytellers who have so many skills who look like me, who look like us, that it’s becoming pretty undeniable that the work is going to manifest itself. In that way, progress has been made, and it’s going to be sustained.”
The wave of peak black cultural production began to crest sometime around 2016, the same year Jenkins released Moonlight ; Insecure , Queen Sugar , Luke Cage , and Atlanta all debuted in a six-month span. The filmmaker had experienced a brief flash of success with his 2009 feature debut, Medicine for Melancholy , which followed two black twentysomethings wading through San Francisco’s gentrifying landscape. But after a number of short films, it was Moonlight that vaulted him into a more rarefied conversation. At once breathtaking and a breakthrough, it fractured, then all but redefined, the very notion of black queer cinema—and won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.
In the 22 months since then, black cultural production has maintained its ascent. Following the surprise success of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out , 2018 alone saw the release of Black Panther , Sorry to Bother You , and BlacKKKlansman . On TV, Mara Brock Akil offered a tender study in alchemy with Love Is __ , Terence Nance delivered Random Acts of Flyness , a stunning and hallucinogenic HBO series that interrogated black futurity. All of this despite gender and racial inequity remaining thorny constants on studio lots and in executive suites, a mirage of liberal progression. A UCLA report published this year on Hollywood Diversity substantiated that minorities remain “underrepresented on every front” within the industry—as directors, writers, producers, and actors—despite a yearning for more representation on screen.
Jenkins isn’t worried. “I see a bright future,” he tells me about young filmmakers of color. “When a movie that has a 98 percent black cast that can gross a bajillion dollars at the box office—I’m talking about Black Panther —it’s pretty undeniable that there’s an audience for these films. The myth has always been that we can’t create the work because there is no one to sell it to, and yet we’ve seen over the last two, three, four, five years that the audience is there.” Even with these strides, I ask him if structural barriers, ingrained as they are in Hollywood, will eventually prove too much. He offers one final prophecy before hanging up: “This resistance that you’re talking about, it’s going to become toothless in a certain way, so long as we keep creating the work authentically.”
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