If Beale Street Could Talk, it would sing KiKi Layne’s praises. Not just because Layne shines as Tish Rivers in the film’s starring role, but her entry into Hollywood is also unlike anything anyone from James Baldwin’s infamous street could have imagined for one of their own: a dark-skinned black woman with natural hair making her motion picture debut leading a critically acclaimed film directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins. It’s an arrival that would have even modern-day Beale Street residents a little shook.
Layne didn’t see this moment coming. Although, as she sat in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park wearing a gorgeous floor-length, sheer green dress, it was hard to believe this was her very first press tour. The childlike glee that danced across her eyes as she recalled the Monday morning her dream became a reality was the only giveaway. The news came in the form of a phone call that woke her up. She didn’t recognize the caller, so she ignored it. “But then the number calls me again and something was like, ‘Girl, you going to pick up that phone?’” she said in her slight Midwestern accent. “So I answer, and the person on the other side of the phone just gets to talking without even introducing themselves. They’re like, ‘Girl, was you asleep? What you sleeping for?’”
The person on the other end of the line was Jenkins, who wanted to tell Layne personally that she got the role of Tish in Beale Street, a part over 300 women auditioned for. “I can’t even really describe the feeling. But I do remember just really wanting to get him off the phone so that I could really go crazy,” Layne said with a laugh.
Some might call Jenkins’ decision to cast a Layne a gamble. The 26-year-old Cincinnati native has been taking acting lessons since she was a child, and was making a name for herself in the Chicago theater scene when she took a leap of faith last summer and moved to Los Angeles to pursue bigger opportunities. But in Hollywood, she was a rookie who had never done a movie before.
“There’s still some studio execs that would not have gotten behind casting me,” Layne said. Beyond being new to the Hollywood scene, her dark complexion and natural tresses go against industry beauty standards, making her an even riskier choice. This is of course especially ridiculous to hear when you’re staring at her big brown eyes and strikingly beautiful face. With a supermodel-like figure and a crown of natural hair that holds its own against whatever designer look she’s slaying at the moment, Layne is sure to be on everyone’s best-dressed list this awards season. But the fact remains that no matter how beautiful and talented she actually is, certain people will still write her off.
“I’m thankful to Barry’s commitment to the truth of the text. Because definitely in the book, Tish is described as someone who looks like me. But we’ve seen, historically, in Hollywood, they don’t always care about that,” Layne said. “And there’s still this idea that lighter skin is more marketable. That that’s going to help the movie get more money.”
Layne recalled reading stories and tweets questioning how the studio was going to market a film with a “no-name, dark-skinned girl.” But her newness didn’t phase Jenkins. During an interview with BuzzFeed News, the Oscar-winning director said the following of his casting process: “I just like to keep an open mind, no matter if you’ve never been on a set, or if you’ve spent 8,000 years on a set, y’all got the same access to this part. Plus it’s always like, ‘Well, you don’t have the training, you don’t have this, you don’t have that’; where the fuck do you get the training if you don’t get a shot to actually do the thing?”
Jenkins noted that Layne wasn’t the only qualified actor, or the only dark-skinned woman who looked like Tish; she was simply the best person for the role. He also credited casting director Cindy Tolan for her ability to find great talent no matter the demographic (Tolan discovered Jason Mitchell while casting Eazy E for Straight Outta Compton). So why, then, do Hollywood producers and casting directors often seem to suggest that dark-skinned leading ladies are nowhere to be found? “It’s like, what are you really looking for and what are you really saying?”Jenkins said of that myth. “What you ultimately find is, you are saying the audience is going to reject certain things. Why are you saying that?”
The idea that black actors have to be a “name” to sell a film seldom allows them to propel into Hollywood early, the way, say, a Jennifer Lawrence might. And the limited opportunities they’re presented doesn’t afford black actors enough leading roles for a fair market test to see if audiences will embrace those films or not. And if people or critics aren’t going to see or like a movie because it’s being led by a dark-skinned face they don’t recognize (as opposed to a white one) — are those really the ideals Hollywood wants to get behind as conversations about representation in the industry continue?
There’s also evidence that debunks the idea that lesser-known black actors can’t sell movies. If you think back to the last dark-skinned woman to get an introduction akin to Layne’s, Lupita Nyong’o comes to mind. Nyong’o burst onto the scene and became an awards season darling, winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave in 2012. Now Nyong’o will be making her return to the awards season red carpet next year thanks to the record-breaking box-office hit Black Panther — another black film with a new face that won over America’s hearts and thirst (Winston Duke). So, is there any data to actually back up studios’ fears that dark-skinned actors can’t be marketed and sell major films?
The “marketability” argument feels especially unfounded in the age of Get Out, Girls Trip, BlacKkKlansman, and the aforementioned Black Panther. It has been proven erroneous again, given Beale Street’s three Golden Globe nominations, including one for Best Picture, a week before its New York and Los Angeles premiere date, Dec. 14.
And while all FUBU wins matter, Beale Street procuring multiple nods while touting Layne as its lead feels extra sweet because of her role as Tish and the type of film it is. In Beale Street, we get to see Tish surrounded by love despite the odds she and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) face due to his false arrest. There’s a tribe of people supporting her and fighting for her happiness. This is vastly different from Nyong’o’s role in her breakout film because she wasn’t the lead, and her character was a slave — Patsey — a role that was important because of the specific story being told and history in general. But Nyongo’o as Patsey also played into the idea that black trauma is the only way to win awards (Halle Berry’s Oscar win for Monster’s Ball, Mo’Nique’s Oscar win for Precious, Octavia Spencer’s Oscar win for The Help, etc.). While Beale Street does hit on the trauma that black men face in prison, it doesn’t ever display that violence; even Fonny’s actual arrest isn’t shown. And when it comes to Tish’s relationship with her family and Fonny, she’s only ever treated with love and care.
“Growing up it wasn’t really us that got to be the love interest, that got to be the romantic lead,” said Layne. “Here I am, this dark-skin woman with this natural hair, who’s being loved. Loved so hard. That’s what Tish is really fighting for [in the movie].”
Black love has never gotten this level of attention to detail onscreen; for Jenkins, it’s almost as if love is in the details. “I do recognize that there’s something almost radical about how vibrant and ecstatic the love between these two people is. I think that with both this film and the previous film [Moonlight], there are just some very simple, everyday things that I’ve seen in my life, you’ve seen in your life, but we haven’t seen maybe presented in a certain way, we haven’t really seen it on a screen that’s 40 feet tall. So, I think that the power comes in not trying to take those things and blow them way up, but just presenting them with dignity, in their full humanity in a certain way,” Jenkins said.
Layne agrees. It wasn’t until she saw it onscreen that the much-needed representation really resonated with her. “These two young, chocolate, black people loving each other that way, and being so vulnerable and open and gentle with each other ... to see this black man caring for this dark-skin woman like that, I mean, it really is... it’s something special,” she said.
In Beale Street, there’s a classic Barry Jenkins close-up of Tish, the kind where the character makes you feel like she is staring into your soul, with minimal makeup and her Afro pulled back into a puff, standing there looking at Fonny. Tish’s appearance is as meaningful as the shot itself because she’s in her natural state. The scene jumps between close-ups of Tish and Fonny looking at each other, their chemistry palpable. It’s all of Nina and Darius’s poetry with none of the games, Quincy and Monica’s lifelong friendship with nothing but an inequitable justice system threatening to tear them apart.
Every moment of their love story is heightened by the fact they are a darker-skinned couple, which is such a rarity onscreen and even runs counter to the description in Baldwin’s book, where Fonny is light-skinned. Jenkins decided to cast James despite not wanting to flip the colorism, because James’ acting demanded he play Alonzo. Jenkins, however, drew the line at switching Fonny because he understood the significance of Tish as a dark-skinned woman. “I’ll be honest, with KiKi’s role, I never would have gone lighter. I feel like the history of colorism has always gone one way; white is right, black is wack,” he said. “So, for me, if I was going to take the aspect of colorism that was in the book and flip it, it was going to be to go against convention, because typically a character is written dark-skinned the way Tish is, and somehow, ‘somehow,’ [the role] ends up cast as light-skinned, and so it felt to me, that if we’re going to flip this the opposite way, I’m okay with that.”
Jenkins also felt that the blackness of the Rivers family was crucial to the movie’s tone, themes, and overall essence. It plays a role in their economic situation in 1974 America, and it’s why the lighter-skinned members of Fonny’s family look down on them. Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris play Tish’s mother, father, and sister, respectively. While Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, and of course, James, make up half of Fonny’s family. It’s an all-star cast rounded out by scene-stealer Brian Tyree Henry, who plays a friend of Fonny’s who is forever changed by his own prison experience.
At the movie’s premiere at the Apollo in Harlem (because where else would you debut Baldwin?), Layne spoke candidly about how her castmates supported her off set as well. As the on-set rookie, they rallied around her to make sure she was never overwhelmed by the whirlwind experience. “They would pull me to the side and say, ‘Hey, you’re good. You got it. You’re where you’re supposed to be. You have everything that you need to succeed here,” Layne said.
She also recalled a time when King and Parris took care of her when she got sick. “They were like, ‘Uh-uh. No. We’re about to shut this down, I already called my doctor, we got an appointment for you tomorrow’ — that’s my family.” It was especially important for Layne to feel that type of sisterhood from King and Parris, because she understands that she’s standing on their shoulders, that she has this opportunity because of the black women in Hollywood who fought to break the glass ceiling so she could ascend into stardom rocking couture and an Afro.
“I was at the Governors Awards and I got to see Cicely Tyson receive an Oscar. And I was just like, ‘I’m here because of what she’s done,’ I’m so aware and so, so very thankful,” Layne said, adding, “With Regina in particular, what I learned from her is that no matter how big I get and whatever success I find, I can still be a really genuine, honest, down-to-earth person.”
By leading Beale Street, Layne represents a major step in breaking critically acclaimed black women actors out of the “supporting” category. But it also shows the importance of representation behind the camera in order for roles like Tish and films like Beale Street to exist and thrive. This is why the presence and achievements of Jenkins, along with Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, and Shonda Rhimes (to name a few), matter. When the storytellers, directors, and juggernauts in Hollywood more accurately represent the diversity of the world, audiences receive a multitude of stories, and actors like Layne get opportunities to play an array of characters.
“I always get a high off what they do next. Seeing them go out and do other work,” Jenkins said of watching the new actors to whom he’d given opportunities to break through, like all the young stars from Moonlight. “To see the reception that KiKi is getting and to be able to see her grow both in the process of making the film and now — it’s like being part of a hip-hop cypher. That energy is spread, and every time it’s passed from one person to the next, it grows.”
Layne is already spreading that energy. Her next film, Native Son, will premiere at Sundance in January, positioning it for the same sort of critical acclaim Beale Street is getting. And while starring in two adaptations of iconic black literature back to back is great, she hopes she’ll get a chance to expand the types of films she does, whether it’s a comedy or Black Panther 2. “That’s the fun part of it. I’m an actor for the opportunity to play roles that might be a little bit out of KiKi’s comfort zone. I’m trying to do it all, girl.” ●