By Anna Wyckoff | January 29, 2021
If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk marks Costume Designer Caroline Eselin’s second collaboration with acclaimed Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. “I would do an infomercial with Barry,” she enthuses. “He is an amazing director and person. He loves what we do. He will sit on the floor and go through fitting photos with me and we will board out the whole movie together. I feel so lucky to get to work with Barry, so, so lucky.”
Eselin is equally passionate about adapting the James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem. She tried to honor the original text by recreating every detail mentioned—from silhouette to colors. Garments cited in the book make their way to the screen, from Fonny’s (Stephan James) red and black lumber jacket from the fifties, to his Henley. To evoke the reality of an impoverished existence, Eselin limits and repeats garments. “Fonny is a sculptor and he is all about found objects. His pieces are cobbled together. His clothes are tried and true,” she explains. For Tish (KiKi Layne), his love interest, Eselin sought to show an innocent optimism early on during the flashback sequences and a darker maturity as the movie progresses.
The colors are evocative of the period and rich with symbolism. Green is used to represent new life. When Tish visits Fonny in prison to reveal she is pregnant and when Sharon (Regina King) travels to Puerta Rico, they both wear green. Eselin says, “We started the conversation about color from Baldwin. We would have weekly meetings with Mark Friedberg, our wonderful production designer, and that conversation continued. The colors revealed themselves and started to become another language. I remember the night that we figured out what Mrs. Hunt would be dressed in. It’s a bright sunny yellow and it’s the most hypocritical color she could wear.”
While the production shot the book in its entirety, many of the larger sequences with numerous background actors were left on the cutting room floor. The result is a close up of two luminous and appealing people juxtaposed against the injustice of everyday life. Eselin creates their personalities through their costumes with respect and nuance. She says, “This movie is beautiful and absolutely devastating. It is the love story of a family and a love story between two soul mates. It also is a love story between two men trying to save their children and a love story between mothers and daughters.”