If Beale Street Could Talk
is a love story spun from the heart of a young Black woman. Over the course of several years, Tish Rivers experiences her first love and the backhand of racial injustice. Barry Jenkins brought the soaring tale to life, and he cast radiant newcomer KiKi Layne to illuminate Tish’s world. I spoke to Layne about her time on set, the redefining sex scene, and what playing a Baldwin character taught her.
Beale Street is the first of James Baldwin’s stories to be adapted for a narrative feature. (Raoul Peck adapted portions of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript for the documentary, I am Not Your Negro.) Written in the 1970s, Beale Street sought to capture the disillusionment that followed the civil rights movement. Schools were desegregated by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, yet in 1971, many schools in Boston still hadn’t integrated their student populations. The war on drugs had just begun. Men were being rounded up en masse for small amounts of drugs, petty parking violations, and often for no reason at all.
Through the grimy streets of ’70s New York City, Layne’s Tish sees the world in life-giving greens and golden hues of sunlight. The love of her life, Fonny (Stephan James), tries to find a home for them and their forthcoming baby. The role is emotionally demanding, calling on Layne to play every emotion from falling in love, to meeting her child, to watching her partner confront a racist cop, to surviving the hellscape that is incarceration in America.
“Tish taught me that love is a source of strength,” Layne says. “She taught me that you can lean on the people you love, and who love you when you’re dealing with tough circumstances. I think my natural go to [in life] is to try and figure out a lot of things by myself. I created this image of strength as someone who’s capable of being really independent and getting through things [alone]. Tish taught me that there’s so much strength and love leaning into the people who love you.”
The film balances the light that love brings against the darkness the world inflicts by bouncing back and forth in time between the couple’s key moments and the tragic present where Fonny is falsely accused of rape. The movie’s most impactful moments take place when the couple decides to consummate their relationship. They’ve known each other since childhood. The pair grew up in one another’s houses. (At one point, the audience sees Fonny and Tish as children, bathing together and laughing.) In the scene, Tish and Fonny demonstrate intimate partnership negotiations. Tish explains that their bodies and minds are not a mystery to one another. Love has always existed between them.
Now that their love has evolved, they’re ready to take the next step. While Tish is a virgin, and there is trepidation in crossing this threshold, there is never fear. Her partner is constantly checking in with her.
“What you see is there’s so much communication between Tish and Fonny,” Layne explains. “So many moments of them checking in with each other, and especially him checking in with her. You just see them taking their time, communicating with each other, and really see Fonny taking care of Tish and asking for permission. He’s respectful of what this moment means.”
The depiction of this beautiful union of two souls is a rare occurrence for Black women. In music videos, Black women are often reduced to sexual objects. Before rap, the film industry spent decades splitting Black women into three categories. They were either angry, loud and rude; hyper sexualized and viewed as exotic temptations; or they were round-faced caregivers. Decades before the invention of movies, Sarah Baartman was paraded around freak shows so patrons could gawk at her naked body.
These representations are seared into the minds of Black women across the world. Consistently, Black female bodies are sexualized before they are shown love. The love they receive is directly proportional to how good they look. Their looks grant social capital to their male partner. This reduces the woman in the relationship to a token. I ask Layne about her first reaction to reading the consummation scene.
“I know for sure I have not seen a love scene portrayed like that before,” she says. “I think it is so real. That is what it would look like if two soulmates made love for the first time.”
Bringing that reality to the screen wasn’t easy. Sex scenes are notoriously tricky to film. Ideally, all the actors should be made to feel safe and comfortable. Then, the scene is filmed from different angles and shot over and over, until the editor is sure the scene can be pieced back together.
“After the first take,” Layne tells me, laughing, “I kept thinking, ‘Damn it takes a long time to get undressed.’”
Luckily, Jenkins takes into consideration the comfort and well-being of his actors in everything he does. Though it was awkward at first, Layne says that ultimately the experience was a rewarding one as an actor.
“I love that Barry just allowed us to take our time. He’s just so patient, and you see that in his work. He just allows moments to live. The way that scene was shot, I thought it was so beautiful.”
“Love brought you here,” Baldwin wrote in Beale Street. It’s a line, Jenkins said at the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, that the cast and crew found themselves meditating on throughout production.
“Beale Street is such an intimate story that I think it requires intimate connections between the artists that are a part of it,” Layne says. That might explain why feelings of love leap off the screen and become tangible for viewers, and why leaving Beale Street is like leaving grandma’s house. On the subject of love, Barry Jenkin’s film and James Baldwin’s source material—and KiKi Layne’s performance—have plenty to say. Now if only more people would listen.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in theaters everywhere now. (Go see it.)