Barry Jenkins is Vital to the Romance Genre

The Moonlight director has found his next project in a James Baldwin love story.
By  · Published on July 11th, 2017

The Moonlight director has found his next project in a James Baldwin love story.

Barry Jenkins is showing no signs of slowing down after his meteoric rise to fame in 2016. Variety reports that he will be directing an adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” This will be Jenkins’ first feature following the critically-acclaimed romance drama, Moonlight, which took home multiple awards at the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Adapting Baldwin’s novel has been a passion project of Jenkins’ for years. In fact, he began drafting the screenplay during the same summer he penned Moonlight. Since then, Jenkins has been closely collaborating with the Baldwin Estate to ensure an accurate collective vision of the novel aligns onscreen. In his own words:

“James Baldwin is a man of and ahead of his time; his interrogations of the American consciousness have remained relevant to this day. To translate the power of Tish and Fonny’s love to the screen in Baldwin’s image is a dream I’ve long held dear.”

All of Jenkins’ films have centered on navigating conventions of Americana through intersections of black identity. One of the most notable aspects of all his movies so far is indeed the focus on romance. Jenkins has fashioned himself into a director of sensitive and unique love stories featuring black Americans. His penchant for these kinds of movies looks set to continue with If Beale Street Could Talk.

Obviously, we’re not here to box Jenkins in. Talent like his should be flung far and wide regardless of genre, recognised for a variety of works that speak to audiences as intensely and intimately as his first two features have.

Nevertheless, If Beale Street Could Talk will be his third romance in a row. The genre could really use the power of Jenkins’ presence based off of his existing filmography alone. Arguably, many facets of Hollywood have a long way to go in terms of upping black representation. However, it is a much more evident problem in romance films.

Earlier this year, Time Out published a list of 100 best romantic movies, curated by various personalities in the industry. According to the publication, “We’ve brought together 101 experts to choose the best romantic movies of all time.” That’s a statement that tries to assure readers of some credence in the quality of the films chosen to represent the category in its entirety.

Undoubtedly, the list does feature bona fide classics from all over the world. This includes a couple of films directed by Wong Kar-wai, who clearly influenced how Jenkins made Moonlight. However, there is still somewhat of an elephant in the room. That is, how decidedly not black any of the films on Time Out’s list are, despite going back to the genesis of Hollywood itself.

There is nothing more indicative of a flawed system than if, out of a hundred movies spanning decades, a particular demographic is clearly left out.

Countless articles about why representation matters have already been published. Nevertheless, there will continue to be more until the industry changes, not just tangibly but permanently as well. Jenkins could be one of the strongest voices in that regard. He already happens to be the perfect antidote with just two films under his belt.

Jenkins has so far managed to present films that leave a lasting impression of love without it being saccharine. His films are those that value the power and importance of relationships without being facile. His debut film, Medicine for Melancholy, is a sobering counterpoint to something like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (ranked at #24 in Time Out’s list).

Before Sunrise and Medicine for Melancholy portray intimacy between strangers very groundedly. However, the so-called “blank canvas” approach that Linklater utilises with his white characters is not replicated for Jenkins’ feature.

It fundamentally cannot. Music-infused wordless montages of the lead characters, Micah and Jo, exploring San Francisco are as far as the fantasy gets in Medicine for Melancholy. Scenes featuring naturalistic dialogue centered on race and gentrification peppered are in between the more lyrical sequences, effectively grounding the film in an inescapable reality where race cannot be ignored.

Medicine for Melancholy represents a snapshot in time that doesn’t get to be – and doesn’t want to be – separated from historical implications. Both Linklater and Jenkins tackled stories about measured, finite love, and both do so very proficiently. That being said, experiences do not simply exist in a vacuum for them to be universal. The final separation of Micah and Jo is a loaded one, given their prior conversations, interracial dating and self-determination being among them. These are observations that make up an essence of a person and make them feel real and much easier to empathise with.

Jenkins’ sophomore film, Moonlight, jettisoned him onto the wider Hollywood scene with its rich visual and aural storytelling. It is definitely one of the most palpably sensual yet deeply heart-wrenching romance films in recent years. Moonlight is more implicit than Medicine for Melancholy, emphatically lyrical in its discussion of gay relationships, masculinity and black male identity.

There remains a complex struggle between the indulgence of living in the moment and the more oppressive wider societal implications within the film. Once again, a conflict exists between the pockets of uncomplicated goodness and the intensely frenetic moments of turmoil. Moonlight subverts stereotypical portrayals of gayness, blackness and maleness. It demonstrates how protagonist Chiron has to negotiate with all three and find a balance that doesn’t just bring him joy, but more importantly, peace.

In Moonlight, intimacy is only achieved in desperate, stolen moments, which Jenkins masterfully illustrates in ways that avoid clichés and rejects falsehood. But Chiron’s struggles for acceptance, his confusion over his identity and his longing for his best friend are still universal concepts. It is thus easy for the audience to fill Chiron’s shoes and relate to him, despite the film simultaneously including the aforementioned social commentary.

Jenkins effortlessly vies for the attention of multiple audiences by indulging in unspoken tension while clearly celebrating the presence of blackness in his films. Moonlight makes this particularly obvious without verbally confronting racism. Instead, cinematography and sound design combine to depict a black boy – later a black man – in disarray until he can finally, unequivocally be himself. It is overwhelming, perplexing and even gets violent. That’s what humanizes Chiron (and Kevin). It makes the characters really accessible to viewers.

This is why Jenkins is such a necessary voice in romance. We used the Time Out list for comparison, but the process of ranking and rating the best of a genre occurs so frequently. Fast forward to just last week, when Indiewire released its own list of 25 best romance movies of the 21st century. Although this one fares slightly better and does films like Loving and Love & Basketball, the fact that Jenkins is notably missing is a little baffling. This is despite the presence of enduring directors like Wong Kar-wai and Richard Linklater and newer additions like Todd Haynes’ Carol and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.

Jenkins’ films undeniably find the sweet spot between universal storytelling and turning the camera towards unconventional narratives that remain unexplored in film. Romance is fundamentally about empathy and intrigue and he manages to capture those qualities so freshly in his work. As the genre evolves, it just makes sense to realise his wonderful aptitude for it. Jenkins sets a standard for modern-day romance filmmaking that ought to be more widely recognised.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)