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'I fell in love with these characters and just how pure their love was'

Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins' new film is about a pregnant woman in Harlem who struggles to prove her fiance innocent of a crime, writes Georgia Humphreys

High praise: Stephan James as Fonny Hunt and KiKi Layne as Tish Rivers
High praise: Stephan James as Fonny Hunt and KiKi Layne as Tish Rivers

After the success of Moonlight - which won three Oscars two years ago - all eyes were on what director Barry Jenkins would do next.

The answer? An adaptation of James Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk, starring the likes of Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry.

For Jenkins (39), the weight of expectation placed on his follow-up project was something he was well aware of.

"It would be a lie to say I didn't acknowledge it," says the Miami-born filmmaker.

"But the script for If Beale Street Could Talk already existed - I had written it at the same time I wrote the screenplay for Moonlight.

"In a way, it was almost protective because, as opposed to entertaining all these other offers, all this other noise in the system, I knew exactly what I wanted to do next."

Jenkins' formal introduction to Baldwin's books was in the form of Giovanni's Room and The Fire Next Time.

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"These works opened up my world view of what masculinity was, what black masculinity was," he says.

"The 'a-ha' moment wasn't necessarily one particular thing he said; it was the way he expressed himself and the depths with which he investigated things he was studying.

"His legacy is very important and very rich. James Baldwin matters because he told the truth."

But even as a self-professed Baldwin fan, Jenkins wasn't as familiar with If Beale Street Could Talk - a love story set in early-1970s Harlem - as some of the American author's other work.

The film follows 19-year-old Tish Rivers (newcomer KiKi Layne), whose fiance Fonny (Stephan James) - also the father of her child - is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

While prison takes its toll on Fonny, Tish is left facing parenthood and holding down a job without her partner at her side, and has to adjust her perspective on the realities of her existence.

Determined to prove Fonny's innocence, the teenager relies on familial and inner strength to reaffirm their hope and resilience.

"I just love the characters," admits Jenkins. "I fell in love with Tish and Fonny and how pure their love was.

"I thought, 'If there is a way to wrestle the language syntax of Baldwin to the ground and translate it into imagery, it would be the story of Tish and Fonny.'"

Jenkins, who earned a scholarship to attend Florida State University, was originally planning on becoming a teacher, but his career plans changed after he signed up for a course on film.

In 2008, he released his debut, a low-budget feature called Medicine For Melancholy.

It was his second film that really brought him to our attention - Moonlight, about an African-American man growing up gay in the mean streets of Miami.

The breathtaking coming-of-age drama led to him becoming the fourth black filmmaker to be Oscar-nominated for directing, and he went on to win the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, along with Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Moonlight also triumphed in the best picture category, a prize La La Land was expected to win - although first came an envelope mishap that went down in history.

La La Land was originally declared the victor due to duplicate sets of cards - held by the only two people who knew the results - being mistakenly handed out to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, before it was announced there had been a mistake.

What was it like for Jenkins in the days following the ceremony?

"The first days were kind of cool - surreal, but cool," he recalls. "I'd be walking down the street and people would honk their horns. I'd go to the cafe and people would buy my coffee. I was like, 'This is really strange.'

"But then I also saw in it (that) people just saw the film and what happened to us as a symbol, you know, the possibility of creating the work in an uncompromising way and having that work actually being received by the world at large.

"Even this idea of the envelope, that shifted for me as well because people often think that a body like the academy - which theoretically is older, white, male; that can't relate to a subject matter that isn't about their lives - that group did vote Moonlight best picture.

"Even that got a bit obscured with the envelope, but I saw it in what people were saying to me."

For example, following the awards, Jenkins heard that Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who wrote and produced Blindspotting - a racial drama set in Oakland - were spurred on by Moonlight's success.

"They told me that they had the script for Blindspotting sitting in a drawer for like five years, then they saw us on stage accepting best picture and called their producer and said, 'Okay, we have to make this - let's keep fighting,'" he says.

"And then that movie was at Sundance the following winter, so I think in ways like that, it was a really lovely time in the aftermath."

Talk turns to this year's Oscars, which are almost upon us. If Beale Street Could Talk is up for three awards: best adapted screenplay, best supporting actress (for Regina King, who plays Tish's deeply compassionate mother Sharon) and best original music score.

On nomination day last month, Jenkins - whose next project is directing a TV series of Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad for Amazon - shared a photograph of notes slipped under his hotel room door, informing him of each nomination.

"We started it on Moonlight," he explains. "I just happened to be in Europe whenever the nominations came out.

"I was so tired and we were in Amsterdam and I was like, 'I don't want to watch this live, this doesn't make any sense,' and so I just took a nap and woke up to these notes under the door.

"Then we did the same thing (this year), and it's wonderful. I like the spread of the nominations, between Nick and his score and Regina and her performance and then Mr Baldwin with the adapted screenplay nomination, which is a really wonderful affirmation of the work we put into the film."

If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas now

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