Starring Stephan James, Kiki Layne, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, and more, “If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of lovers Fonny and Tish. Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, the film chronicles Tish’s pregnancy and how she navigates New York City in the 1970’s as a black woman, all the while trying to prove her fiancé’s innocence as he’s falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
Barry Jenkins, director of Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” spearheaded the film. His previous movie’s success, however, has not overwhelmed Jenkins: “Beale Street” is comfortably among the most critically acclaimed films of this awards season, according to Rotten Tomatoes. With King already having received a Golden Globe for her performance as Sharon Rivers, only time will tell what Hollywood’s gatekeepers have in store for the rest of the crew.
The Hoya sat down with both lead actress Layne and director Jenkins.
Was there any particular character or actress who you looked to for inspiration when playing Tish?
Layne: No, there wasn’t any actor or performance that I looked to. I really, again, just pressed into what Baldwin gave me in the novel because he’s able to paint all of those colors of Tish in such a rich way. So I was pulling from that, and thankfully had Barry as a director who was just so good at communicating what each moment was for her or where she may have been in her growth and development as a result of everything that’s happening, so I think that dialogue between me and Barry was a huge part of me figuring out where Tish was in what moment.
During the pregnancy, you depict a lot of moments of hardship and the difficulties that come with being a pregnant black woman in the United States, working in a white-dominated space. What was it like performing that role where you have to navigate the two spaces as a pregnant woman, and what do you hope audiences get out of that explanation of the differences between the worlds?
Layne: Well, playing a pregnant woman was interesting. A lot of my research was just random YouTube videos and really getting a sense of what women are going through at each stage of pregnancy and trying to be mindful of that depending on what scene we’re filming. If it was one of the scenes where I’m pregnant, I’m like, “OK, how many months along am I? Well, then this is what I’m dealing with.”
In terms of those moments where we’re talking about the differences between what white people may have experienced and what black people were experiencing at the time, I think that’s so much just where James Baldwin comes alive in those moments. Especially when it’s just the narration and I’m narrating directly from the book.
Baldwin’s ability to talk about what the black community was dealing with and the black experience is just so special and something that he had such a gift with. So it’s just bringing all of that forward, which is why I’m excited for people to see this film because “Beale Street” is one of his lesser-known works. It allows people to digest the real things that Baldwin is talking about but it’s still a love story.
I think if you really, really connect to the love that’s in Beale Street, the injustice and the pain and the unfairness then affects you even more because we would hope you’re rooting for this love, but then when you see all the things attacking it, then you have to realize that those same things are still attacking black people and black love.
How did it feel to narrate over the film using Baldwin’s words?
Layne: That was interesting because the voiceover work — that’s a skill too. You aren’t really in the moment, but you have to get back into that place to bring the truth and honesty to the words you’re saying. Thankfully, Baldwin is such a special, special writer that it was easy to connect to. It was interesting to see what images Barry and the team chose for some of the narration because Baldwin paints such vivid, vivid images throughout the novel, so I kind of just leaned into that and trusted in the power of these words that he had written.
How did you ensure your actors’ facial expressions were timed correctly with the close-up shots because there were a lot of stills throughout the film? Was there a way for you to gauge when there would be enough time to focus on a certain expression in a certain scene?
Jenkins: Yeah, I tried to not be afraid to operate as I always do. I just wanted to be mindful about what I was doing because this wasn’t my point of view.
With “Moonlight,” I can say that was kind of my point of view fused with Tarell [Alvin McCraney]’s, but I’m just not a woman. I never have been and maybe someday I will be, can’t say, but I never have been. So, I was just really careful about being mindful of it in this film, but I still have to do what I do.
There were moments when — invasive is not the word I’d use — but it was necessary to have a proximity to the characters. The two sequences where that happens in a very particular, but concerted way are the two conversations between black men: It’s when Daniel and Fonny have their conversation and then when the two fathers have theirs later in the film. Those sequences both start out in wides, to be honest, and as the scene progresses, this is not anything clever, but we’ll get closer and closer.
Near the end, we get extremely close to the two men who are revealing themselves the most. It was an organic process, but it was something that you start the day and you’re aware of it but goes away as you start to work.
Many credit you for crafting an authentic tale of black love, one of many emerging stories about minorities by minorities. What do you think the future is of minority representation in terms of more nuanced stories than just the typical, “Oh, this is here, now we’re seen as a community,” and that’s it?
Jenkins: It’s tricky, but it’s a good time. I think the audience is rabid. There’s so many of these films, these stories, these television shows coming from where they haven’t come previously, and the audience is there. It’s becoming so undeniable that I think these stories won’t be in the minority for much longer in a certain way. Which is dope because the world is much more diverse than the media that we push into it, but we’re catching up.