Stephan James Talks ‘Beale Street’ and Black Love

Barry Jenkins’ new film If Beale Street Could Talk is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Baldwin. When writing the book, I’m sure Baldwin never thought his works would be translated on screen. A conversation can also be had on whether or not James Baldwin ever thought his work would be as poignant today as it was 44 years ago. The justice system is still screwed, Black folks are still in poverty in America, but hopefully the public’s view of ‘Black love’ will change upon viewing this film.

The film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny, young lovers from Harlem in the 1960s. When Fonny is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish discovers she is pregnant, her family rallies together to prove Fonny’s innocence.

As per usual, The Nerds of Color are right on time with interviews. This time we’re speaking with Beale Street star Stephan James who had some stirring comments on Black love in Hollywood and the inspiration for his character Fonny.

VALERIE: I love Toronto and I know that’s where you’re from, so I’m wondering is acting something you’d thought you’d explore while growing up in Canada?
I’ve always been a fan of characters and acting. At first I was doing it for fun and I’ve always been shy and reserved, so I never thought acting professionally was a possibility. Once I got to high school, I experimented with theater and stepped out of my shell. It was then I realized the impact of the artform so I started taking it seriously.

Take me through the audition process. What was that like for you?
I spoke it into existence really. Shortly before I got the call about auditioning, I was thinking about how I would love to work with Barry Jenkins. When my manager finally did call about If Beale Street Could Talk, I felt it was kismet. He told me it was based on a book by James Baldwin and there was a character named Fonny I should audition for. I read the screenplay and was blown away, so I went back and read the novel and thought what a heartbreaking story but a special story of love. Reminded me of the Black version of Romeo and Juliet.

From there, I decided to film a tape of myself reading some scenes and sent it to Barry and then asked him if he would like to meet me for lunch in LA — which he agreed. At our lunch meeting he explained his vision for the film, the color palette, and the story he wanted to convey. I was excited at the idea of being involved and was willing to be a part of this in any capacity. We left the lunch and I sent him some more scenes because I wanted him to realize my commitment to the project and the character. A week later I got the call from my manager [and was] told I got the part.

What was your reaction?
When my manager called and told me I was speechless. Then Barry called and congratulated me. I am truly honored.

What was it like working on set with Regina King, Colman Domingo, and creating the family element on screen?
I feel like this cast really went all the way. It’s a remarkable thing to be around performers you are inspired by. For me Regina King and Colman Domingo are two actors I respect. We’re really a family and committed to being that family when the cameras cut. There is still and abundance of love there that’s evident. And it’s the kind of love and chemistry you need to tell a story like this. You can’t go about this in a fake way. You need authenticity. It’s less about acting and tapping into the meaning of why Baldwin wrote those words.

James Baldwin’s words resonate today especially with the disproportionate amount of young Black men in the prison system. How did that aspect of Fonny connect with you?
His works resonate as it’s unfortunately timeliness of the themes in his book which continue to live on. We’re having the same sort of struggle, and it meant a lot to me to tell that aspect of the story as well. A lot of my inspiration for the character and his time in prison was Kalief Browder and his experience with his ordeal in 2010. I saw Fonny as a vessel to speak for Kalief and speak for so many young men who have been wronged by the system that is put in place to protect you and doing the opposite.

I talked about the idea of Black love and how that’s portrayed in cinema. Do you foresee Beale Street changing broader perceptions on how love works within the Black community?
It’s a unique thing to be able to show love in the way Fonny and Tish love. I think we often call it ‘Black love’ because it hasn’t given us the opportunity to show what it’s like for us to really love. So it feels unique and revolutionary like loving while Black is an act of activism or a political statement. It’s interesting people find it so compelling, as if this is something new. But I want to acknowledge that it is a special moment when you highlight soul mates who are Black, where both have different family dynamics. What I mean is seeing families who care about their children, and uplift one another, having fathers who are actively present and raising their children. We have many other versions of what that looks like from Hollywood, though.

If Beale Street Could Talk is currently in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, but opens nationwide on December 21.

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