During the course of filming If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins tried to stay loyal to the vision and flavor of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Jenkins filmed in Harlem, where Baldwin’s tragic love story takes place, and the film recently premiered at the Apollo Theater, not far from where Baldwin himself grew up.
But the director recently revealed that he and Baldwin, who died in 1987, saw eye-to-eye on what a potential adaptation of the film would look like.
According to IndieWire, Jenkins shared Baldwin’s notes—which have not been released nor talked about before—at a New York Film Festival event prior to the movie’s premiere.
Baldwin’s novel centers on two young Harlem lovers, Fonny and Tish. When Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and imprisoned, Tish—who is pregnant with his child—must fight to exonerate him.
As Jenkins told interviewer Darryl Pinckney, an author and Baldwin scholar, he received a package from Baldwin’s estate before starting production on Beale Street. IndieWire reports the package included a notebook dated from 1978, containing handwritten notes from Baldwin on how he would approach a film adaptation of his novel.
“It was clear that he was writing the screenplay for the film himself,” Jenkins told Pinckney. Among Baldwin’s notes were casting suggestions for the possible film and a wish list of directors.
Among the actors listed in Baldwin’s notes were Ruby Dee, Rosalind Cash and an unidentified person initialed “D.B.” Jenkins didn’t mention whether Baldwin’s notes included any specifics about which roles he was eyeing those three actresses for. It’s unlikely any of them would have been up for the starring role of teenager Tish, played by newcomer Kiki Layne in Jenkins’ film, since they were all much older at the time.
On another page, Jenkins said, Baldwin “listed creative things he was going to do” for the film. By the time the Oscar-winning filmmaker had discovered these notes, though, he had already completed his first draft of the Beale Street screenplay, which he began writing in 2013. Jenkins said he and Baldwin ended up having similar visions.
“He wanted a running voiceover from Tish’s perspective, and I thought OK, good, I did that. And, in the novel, there’s this lovely scene of Tish and Fonny as children in a church, but Baldwin noted that he didn’t think there was any place for that scene in his vision of the film. And in my own draft, I didn’t think there was any place for the scene either,” Jenkins said.
“I thought, ‘OK, me and JB, we cool!’”
Jenkins also shared that he first began working on the screenplay at the same time he was writing the screenplay for Moonlight. Writing the screenplay in relative obscurity seemed to help the process, the director said.
“It wasn’t a burden only because, when I wrote it, I had no damn idea or clue that I would ever get to make it,” the director, who’s already getting Oscar buzz for Beale Street, said. “I didn’t know anyone from the Baldwin estate; I didn’t have the rights to the novel. I just told myself, you know what, I’m just going to write this thing and the reward will be the pleasure of writing it.”
“The work existed as a thing onto itself, and all those outside pressures that we allow to influence our minds, none of that was there,” he added. “It was just me and the novel.”