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KiKi Layne: We don’t see black people portrayed as soulmates

A SPECIAL KIND OF LOVE: KiKi Layne plays Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk

KIKI LAYNE, the breakout star of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is fully aware of the importance of her role, not just in terms of driving the fictional story forward – as Tish, she is the young woman whose eyes we see Beale Street through and whose voice narrates the journey she, Fonny and their families navigate – but in making strides in Hollywood’s portrayal of black life and love.

Working with Jenkins, who she describes as a patient director, a quality that can only be a welcomed by an actress cast in her first film and one by a filmmaker whose last won the Oscar for best picture, has no doubt brought out the best in her.

As Tish in the adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, she’s vulnerable yet strong, something her character has to be. Fonny [Stephan James], the man she loves deeply, whose child she is pregnant with, is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The tender way in which the pair love through their pain and before Fonny’s incarceration is potent.

“I think it’s very special because you don’t see black people portrayed as soulmates and in this film that’s what Tish and Fonny are – these are soulmates,” she says.

"And I think it makes their love story that much more powerful," she adds.

Her description of their connection is also used by her co-star Stephan James, on screen and off they’re in sync, a testament to their incredible chemistry.

This soulmate kind of love that Layne refers to is one of the reasons the casting of two lead dark-skinned actors is so arresting. It is not simply their appearance but who they appear to be. The characters they embody are passionately, unconditionally and eternally in love.

SOULMATES: Stephan James (Fonny) and KiKi Layne (Tish) in If Beale Street Could Talk

While we’ve seen the roles available to black actors in recent times become more complex and varied, when it comes to romance, there’s a lot of work to be done. Progress and dialogue regarding diversity, inclusion and representation in art is at times derailed and confused by tokenism. But the progressive casting of black actors is only worth truly celebrating when the people they play are whole and humanised.

“Although Tish and Fonny are fictional characters, they are representative of real people. There are real people in these situations today and the film, I think, is special because people in these situations are often just reduced to some type of statistic. Like oh, ‘this number that, this percentage this’ but the film forces you to see these people as full human beings and acknowledge all of their humanity,” Layne says.

Authentic representation means telling the stories of black people beyond age-old stereotypes and period dramas centring solely on slavery and the civil rights era. And as much as it’s about presenting the diversity of the blackness in terms of subject matter, it’s also essential that black beauty across the spectrum gets significant screen time. In Beale Street, there are no concessions to make the visual of black romance more digestible for audiences or executives who favour a light-skinned love interest with loose curls and Layne is conscious of the message it sends.

“Both Stephan and I being dark-skinned actors, you know, me having my natural hair out in the film that’s an image, too, that I don’t think is something that we see and so I think it’s extremely important to see that image because it’s real. I mean, there are chocolate black people loving each other all over the world,” she says.

Despite his fairly new status as a mainstream filmmaker, Jenkins is renowned for creating art which expertly showcases the beauty of black skin. It was one of the striking elements of Moonlight that stunned audiences back in 2016. In Beale Street, the lighting of the different shades and tones of black skin is saccharine – it’s the on-screen treatment black actors and audiences deserve. Our hair is celebrated too. From Tish’s fro to Fonny’s mane and the side parting style worn by Joseph (Tish’s father played by Colman Domingo), Beale Street is a masterclass in the how to handle our crowns with care.

For Layne, the early 70s setting of Beale Street meant that the choice to wear her hair natural, was, well, a natural one.

BOLD: KiKi Layne hopes this love story will shake up Hollywood

“I definitely know that it is a very important image to see this dark-skinned girl with her natural hair out being loved that hard. I think that is extremely important and never really was questioned that I would have my hair out. I’m like, it’s the early 70s, you know, yeah, let’s rock this fro – and you see the same thing with Teyonah Parris [who plays Tish’s sister Ernestine],” she says.

Despite it being an obvious choice, it’s still one that has been cherished by black women and girls, especially those used to seeing their blackness compromised for commercial gain.

“It’s not lost on me that that people are having a real response to just seeing a black woman with her fro out and being in love because where else do we have that, which is unfortunate when you really start to think about it. I’m like, yeah, where else have we had that?” Layne says.

She doesn’t explicitly say why she believes the gatekeepers in the mainstream film industry have previously shunned stories like this but she has some thoughts.

“For whatever reason media and Hollywood has deemed that for a long time as [laughs] not being something maybe that’s marketable, maybe they think it’s something that people aren’t interested in seeing,” she says with a slightly confused and questioning tone.

The success of recent films with black majority casts have dismantled the myth that black films don’t sell and pushed the boundaries on what executives believe black actors are capable of. While Layne believes there is a real change occurring, one that she’s personally benefited from, she’s aware there’s still a lot progress to be made.

“I definitely think that the response that people are having to seeing that image will definitely I hope makes some changes in Hollywood that yeah, we love too and we love that hard and are loved that hard, that we receive that type of love as well,” she says.

She adds: “I think we’re still at the very beginning but I do believe that there is a shift happening in the industry where we are seeing films like Beale Street being made or even my next project Native Son [an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel], you have BlacKkKlansman, you have Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, Get Out, so we are starting to see a lot more films that don’t that into the limited stories that have been available to tell like the black experience, which it’s unfortunate it’s taken this long because it’s like, all black people don’t fit into the four stories that Hollywood has told over and over and over and over and over.”

If Beale Street Could Talk is cinemas from today

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