There is no question the work of writer and activist James Baldwin is timeless and timely because no matter how long ago he wrote his books, essays, and social commentary, his words are always right on time. Barry Jenkins’ new film If Beale Street Could Talk is an adaptation of the novel of the same name that works to capture the essence of Baldwin’s message of love, poverty and a broken justice system.
The film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny, young lovers from Harlem in the 1960s. When Fonny is accused on a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish discovers she is pregnant, her family rallies together to prove Fonny’s innocence.
With the film releasing in select theaters in New York and LA, The Nerds of Color are just in time with interviews. I enjoyed talking with the charming young actress Kiki Layne about love, family, and working with legendary actress Regina King.
VALERIE: What was the audition process like for you? How did you hear about the role, and what brought you to audition?
KIKI: I heard about the casting through a friend who was auditioning for the role of Fonny, and he asked me to be his reading partner. It wasn’t until two weeks later I was able to submit my own audition tape. When I moved on to the next round, the next step was the chemistry read with Stephan James in New York because he was already cast by that time.
What was your reaction to be offered the part of Tish?
Barry Jenkins called me super early one morning from a number I didn’t recognize, (and I don’t pick up no calls from strange numbers!), so I figured if it’s important they will call back or leave a message. The number called back immediately and something told me to pick up the phone. A voice gets to talking and doesn’t say who it is, so I’m like ‘what is going on here?’ I was then asked if I knew who it was and I guessed it was Barry Jenkins. Now at this point I am holding my composure and trying not to scream! He called because he wanted to tell me himself that I got the role, and man, there is no way to describe that feeling. I couldn’t wait to get him off the phone so I could really go all in with excitement.
Can you take us through what it was like to work on set with a prestigious group of actors like Regina King and Colman Domingo?
This is a really special experience for me. In Beale Street, this family comes around my character Tish and supports her as she’s dealing with all these new experiences. The same went for me, Kiki Layne. I am new to this world so it was great that the whole team, cast, crew, production, came around and made the environment supportive for me. Everyone was looking out for me and for one another and it really felt like a family.I hope that element made our dynamic seem more authentic on camera.
There has been a lot of talk about Black love in Hollywood and what that’s looked like over the years. We know what it looks like: love is different for different individuals and Black people are not a monolith. However, there is a perception that love exists in a vacuum for us — so do you feel this film will change the way everyone looks at that?
Every character has a statistic attached to them. What I mean is, when we look at Fonny, you think about the amount of Black men in prison. When you look at Victoria Rodgers, you think about women and sexual assault, etc. Our experiences aren’t always seen as human experiences. That’s why our stories seem to exist on the fringe.
If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t reduce its characters down to numbers. I think people will recognize there is something special about this story because these two characters are soulmates and that’s something we don’t often see for Black characters where you can feel this soul connection. Seeing all of these people love and be loved in this new and intimate way so I think it will affect audience perspective.
You spoke about family dynamics and how family is important. There is something striking about how the women in Tish’s family stick together. and how that’s perceived by the outside world can you talk about the relationship between the actresses and characters.
There was a week on set where I was not feeling well and Regina and Tiana took care of me. They made sure I was seeing a doctor, resting, you know, something that a sister and mother would do. When Tish tells her mom she’s pregnant, that could have went a different way, a negative way and we’ve seen it that way so many times, so to be apart of that love and support on and off screen between a Black family is a beautiful thing.
Have you read the book? And if so, do you feel James Baldwin’s words still hold weight today as they did 44 years ago?
The topics James Baldwin discussed in 1974 are still relevant today and that’s pretty sad. What’s interesting is this film is releasing during the time of social media. We are inundated with images of things we never used to see. So we as people see Baldwin’s words brought to life through the things we see. That is why much more of these types of stories need to be told. People need to have stories and experiences they can connect to.
The original ending of the film coincided with how it ends in the book. When receiving feedback on the initial cut, Barry didn’t feel it served the film or wrapped it up well as that ending left the movie in such a dark place. This isn’t me speaking for him but the new ending is wrapped in so much love but also so much pain circumstances. It gives the audience a bit of hope.
What do you want the audience to get from the experience of watching this film?
I want people to see the humanity in these characters. They aren’t just victims, they are sons daughters, brothers, mothers — human people. If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless and timely story about things happening to people then and now. I hope audiences leave the theater thinking more introspectively about the things they see and hear.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 14 and nationwide on December 21.