Stephan James and KiKi Layne play Fonny and Tish, two young lovers torn apart by Fonny’s false arrest, just as Tish finds out she’s pregnant. The film jumps through narratives, and we watch their love bloom at the same time we watch Tish’s family come together to face the terrible odds of getting Fonny free.
Nothing in If Beale Street Could Talk is new. Black love isn’t new. White cops wielding their power against marginalized populations isn’t new. Finding strength in vulnerability isn’t new. The many injustices of our justice system aren’t new. James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974, and yet the combination of all these experiences—the love and the pain—manages to feel new in the hands of Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.
This isn’t James’s first time in a film that deals with such powerful themes. At 25, he’s already played icons Jesse Owens and John Lewis. But this is Layne’s first feature film, and next year she’ll be starring in another adaptation of a seminal work, Richard Wright’s Native Son. The two spoke about the beauty and urgency of Baldwin’s work, how Jenkins translated that to film, and how unfortunately timely and rare the film’s message is.
GQ: Before this, what was your relationship to James Baldwin’s work?
Stephan James: I had read The Fire Next Time a long time ago. I think I was more familiar with James as an activist, as a poet, but not necessarily his writing work. After I read the Beale Street screenplay for the first time, I went back and read the novel.
KiKi Layne: I hadn’t read any of his novels prior to this. I had just been familiar with all the different interviews and speeches he’d given. Beale Street was the first novel that I actually read, and I read it in preparation for my chemistry read. Since then I’ve read so much more. I mean, he’s definitely one of those authors you read one thing, and then you read everything.
What drew you to this movie? Was it just Baldwin’s story?
Layne: I just love that [Tish is] so vulnerable, and just all this love that’s around her. I thought that was so beautiful, how much Tish and Fonny love each other. I just felt like I hadn’t seen love like that for black people, where like you see these two young black people who are soul mates. That really drew me in, but then at the same time, because it’s James Baldwin, the way that he writes and speaks about all of these different injustices, and how beautifully all of that is interwoven with this really lovely love story… It’s amazing to me, the ability to speak about these really painful things but then still be so uplifted and invested in their love. I don’t know, I just think it’s so powerful how Baldwin and Barry, bringing it to film, were able to communicate these two stories in a way.
James: It was, for me, the prospect of working with James Baldwin and with Barry Jenkins, you know, that marriage. The both of them remind me of each other in a way, where they have this beautiful way of describing love and having an abundance of love amidst tragedy, and do it in such a poetic way. So the prospect of working with them, of working with Regina [King, who plays Tish’s mother], it was on, and it was something that was so important, something that I felt was so timely. I looked at Fonny and the ordeal he was going through, and right before finding out about this script I had learned about the Kalief Browder story. For me it was this full-circle moment where I thought to myself, “Wow, James Baldwin had written these words in 1974, but they mean so much now. They probably mean even more now.” I took it on almost like a responsibility to be the vessel to tell this type of story.
The story is unfortunately resonant almost 50 years after it was written. Why do you think now was the right time to tell it again?
James: James Baldwin has a way of describing our struggle and what we have always resorted to [in order] to get through those moments. Love is the biggest thing, right? Love and hope is how we’ve made it through the most tumultuous times, specifically for the African-American experience. You look at a system that has been made to protect you but has failed us time and time again. You have young men who are really having their innocence taken away from them before they get to realize who they even are as people. To me, just that timeliness and timelessness of the story struck me as important.
Layne: I think with social media, people are more aware of these injustices and have more stories and personal experiences and images that are related to a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with in the film. I think that helps to make it more powerful in this time, where you’re watching Fonny and you’re not just thinking about Fonny. You have all of these other images and men and stories that you could think about that are similar to what he is experiencing in the film. I think that’s what makes it really powerful this time, because I think it can be a lot more personal for many more audience members.