The December 3, 2018, issue of The New Yorker is a special archival issue of the magazine: alongside many other pieces, it includes an excerpt of James Baldwin’s essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” from 1962, which, the following year, became part of Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” More than five decades later, Baldwin’s writing on racism, poverty, and mass incarceration continues to resonate. Among his contemporary readers is the director Barry Jenkins, whose film “Moonlight,” from 2016, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His new film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is based on Baldwin’s novel of the same name, from 1974. The book and the film follow the story of a young African-American couple, Tish and Fonny, who struggle to fight off despair and hold on to their humanity after Fonny is falsely accused—and wrongfully convicted—of a brutal crime. Over the phone, Jenkins talked about his new film and Baldwin’s influence on his work.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

How did you first come to read James Baldwin?

Giovanni’s Room,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Another Country”—those novels were my first encounters with Mr. Baldwin. And then the essay “The Fire Next Time,” and then the collection of film criticism “The Devil Finds Work.” Those were the pieces that really formed the Baldwin canon for me until I encountered “Beale Street.”

What did you think of “The Fire Next Time” when you first read it?

Well, “The Fire Next Time” was given to me by an ex-girlfriend, so I had no choice but to read it—I was told that I had to read this work. And it was just so overwhelming to read someone being so forthright about an America that had not disappeared, and about an America that so clearly was linked to the one that I found myself in at that moment. I have always admired how honest Baldwin was in describing the ways in which we all participate in these systems, both of society and of government, that have consistently, over the decades, disenfranchised the lives and souls of black folks in America.

Baldwin was clearly trying to push people to be more open, more forthright, not just about race but about love and sexuality.

Mr. Baldwin was the first writer I read to be that open and frank about his depictions of sensuality, of sexuality. Very frank and matter-of-fact. And what I love about “Beale” is that he’s very clear about there not being any shame about so many different things. Tish and Fonny’s child will be born out of wedlock; Tish is a girl who loses her virginity before she’s married. He depicts these things without shame. I think, for him, it was about fighting repression. It was almost a radical attempt to allow these characters their full range of emotions and experiences. These things can be uncouth, or scary, which can then make them seem unnatural. Once you get to that point—and now I’m speaking in Baldwinian terms—then you’re talking about the debasement of the person’s humanity. And, I think, in a very simple way, by creating these very concrete depictions of corporeal actions that all human beings experience, Baldwin is just asserting the characters’ full access to their humanity.

I think that it’s interesting for someone who was writing in the time that he was—when there was so much at stake, when there were so many potential fires that could spark up—to hold on to this element, to the idea of sensuality. You could almost argue, Why not just stick to civil rights? Make it really clear and clean and rated G. And he was, like, “No, to hell with that!” My acknowledgment of [sexuality] does not make me any less worthy of acknowledging the degradation and systemic injustice faced by black people in America.

How did you find your way to “Beale Street”?

A friend sent it to me in 2010 or 2011, with the language that I should read it because she thought there was a film in it, and that I was a good candidate to turn it into one. That usually goes in one ear and out the other. But when I read it, I really understood what she meant, because of just how pure the love between Tish and Fonny was. This depiction of two young black people as soul mates just really moved me. And yet there was still the anger and the social critique that Mr. Baldwin was noted for in his nonfiction work. It’s the blend of the fiction voice and then the nonfiction—the essayistic voice—in the novel that was such a winning combination for me.

In “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin writes about the fear he heard in his father’s voice when his dad “realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it.” One of the subjects of that essay, and of “Beale Street,” is the flawed criminal-justice system—in “Beale Street,” after an encounter with the police, Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

Yes. And “Beale Street” was published in 1974—today it’s even more egregious, because the system is for-profit, and it’s supply and demand: these young men have to be supplied in order for the system to operate at the level it’s designed to. The system’s objective is to keep feeding the system.

Watching the film, I thought of Kalief Browder, the New York teen-ager who was accused of stealing a backpack and then spent three years at Rikers, often in solitary confinement. After he was released, he committed suicide.

It’s interesting that you mention Kalief Browder, because Stephan James, who plays the main character, Fonny, in the film, said that he modelled quite a bit of the inner life of his character on the ordeal of Kalief Browder, which is horrific. The way Baldwin treated the mass-incarceration industry in the book was by showing the toll it takes on the young people who are forced into it. The first thing that struck me about the book was the love between Tish and Fonny—but it’s also about how that love could be corrupted by the randomized way that Fonny finds himself entrapped by the system.

The longest scene in your film version of “Beale Street” is a conversation between Fonny and his friend Daniel, who has already been incarcerated.

One of my favorite lines in the novel is, “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit, and everything they saw around them proved it.” And Daniel is one of those kids. He’s grown up not only to accept that the city is showing him that he’s not worth shit but he’s also been through the system, and, for him, that has confirmed it—you are shit because we can treat you like this, and there’s no moral or legal recourse. We decided very early that this would be at the midway point in the film—that after we’d established all of these things about Tish and Fonny, this other character shows up, and you would be able to see how dark this ordeal could become for Fonny.

At its simplest, for me, it’s this thing that happens between young black men when you see each other and you have this conversation. “Hey, how’re you doing?” “Oh, I’m good.” But if you keep talking, it goes, “I’m good, and. . . .” And if you keep talking, “I’m good, but. . . .” And if you keep talking, it’s, like, “You know what, actually, I’m really not good.” And a lot of times we don’t allow ourselves to have that conversation all the way through until the end, when the actual work that needs to be done, to release some of this trauma, is possible. But I felt like, in this sequence, with those two characters, Baldwin gifted us with this very lived-in experience, where you do see the character get to the place where he can release some of it.

What song was playing during Fonny and Daniel’s conversation?

That’s Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green.” That’s always been my favorite track on “Kind of Blue.” I remember, when we first put it in, someone said to me, “Oh, but why is that jazz song playing? It just seems kind of like Muzak jazz.” But it’s one of the saddest jazz standards I’ve ever heard! And as you see the well of trauma in Daniel open up, and he allows himself to access it, “Blue in Green” isn’t just coming out of the record player—it’s coming out of Daniel, in a certain way.

One of my favorite passages in “Letter from a Region in My Mind” is about jazz. Baldwin writes, “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.” The songs have a duality. The happiest songs can come from a place of sadness, and the saddest out of happiness.

That’s why, in “Beale Street,” so much of the score is ruled by jazz. We go from lush moments of romanticism to very serious moments of trauma. Sometimes, the thing that is happy is not so happy, and the thing that sounds sad is not so sad. It’s about a specificity of experience—and about the energy that the player is putting into the note.

Another idea that’s addressed in both “Beale Street” and “The Fire Next Time” is the idea of the passive liberal—Baldwin asks what action, if any, progressives are taking.

That’s why we made Heyward, the lawyer, a decade younger than he is in the novel. It’s almost like he’s this wet-behind-the-ears, kind of green, almost passive liberal guy. So, what is he actually doing, besides just going along? And then Tish and Fonny enter his life, and he starts to see the consequences of passive allyship. How many more Fonnys could be saved or protected from this fate if everyone at his firm gave a shit, the way he’s beginning to?

We actually wrote an additional scene that’s not in the novel around that character. It was an attempt at showing him embodying the change that Mr. Baldwin thought was possible—the move toward an aggressive allyship, as opposed to a passive one. But the movie rejected it! I think a movie’s like an organism, and the movie rejected it. But I think this notion of these things just “happening” to people like Fonny, but that not being anybody’s fault—it’s just this thing in the air—I think Baldwin was saying that that’s just not the case. We all play a part. We all play a role.