Cincinnati Native KiKi Layne — Star of 'If Beale Street Could Talk' — Chats the Golden-Globe Nominated Movie

"If Beale Street Could Talk" hits Cincinnati theaters this week. We caught up with Layne, who stars as Tish, while she was home for the holidays.

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click to enlarge Stephan James as Fonny (left) and KiKi Layne as Tish - Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Stephan James as Fonny (left) and KiKi Layne as Tish

KiKi Layne — who stars as Tish in the new film If Beale Street Could Talk — has been a bit of everywhere lately, including in a 12-page spread in Vogue alongside Stephan James (who plays Fonny in the film) and cracking it up on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert

But the 26-year-old Cincinnati-native came home for the holidays, where we chatted with her about Beale Street, which was released Christmas Day. A 2009 graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, her role in the Barry Jenkins-directed film is being hailed as her breakthrough performance. 

Initially, Layne says, it was seeing the names of Jenkins and James Baldwin that drew her to the script. (Beale Street will mark Jenkins' first film since Moonlight, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.) Beale Street has already been nominated for multiple Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture, scored a fresh 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, garnered Oscar buzz and even landed on our own critic's top 10 films of 2018 list. (Read here.)

For the uninitiated: The film, based on Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name, explores black love in 1970s Harlem, where Tish is engaged to Fonny, an artist whom she's been friends with since childhood. She becomes pregnant, but their plans of a life together are derailed when her fiancé is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. 

The film itself is vibrant, poetic and moving; it wields lush colors that meld to each flare of emotion. The viewer sees flashes of the story, which is mostly told through woven flashbacks and present-day events. In one moment Fonny is lit by harsh florescent light, separated from Tish by glass. The injustice here is felt wholly, as the couple peers at one another with both love and despair. In the next breath, the young couple is shown holding hands under the city lights — leaning, laughing and smiling together like one of Fonny’s sculptures. Jenkins knows how to compose characters within a frame. Every color, slant of light, music choice and angle feels carefully orchestrated to evoke the feeling needed.

It’s a story of inequality, discrimination and violence that contributes to the institutionalized racism that black communities face — but it's juxtaposed with portrayals of love, family, loyalty and determination despite the skewed circumstances they've been dealt. Like Moonlight and Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins' first film, If Beale Street Could Talk is told through the prism of love.

"Once I read the script and then read the novel, I was blown away about how — at its core — it's this really beautiful love story. But because it's James Baldwin, there's a lot of truth woven in to it about a lot of issues like mass incarceration, police brutality and just overall issues related to race," Layne says. "I thought it was so powerful — the combination of those things — but it's the love that triumphs." 

Layne says that although the character of Tish and her are very different, she felt an initial spiritual connection — through her, she says she learned the strength of vulnerability. 

"Hollywood has had a very limited offering for roles for actresses who look like me," Layne says. "I definitely want to be a part of breaking out of those limitations and out of those stereotypes of what a dark-skinned actress — with my skin tone and texture of natural hair — are capable of and what roles are deemed appropriate for us."

Beale Street is a part of that movement. So, she says, is her next project, Native Son. (It will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 24.) The images we consume are everything, she says; only having the same kind of representation affects self-image. 

"I definitely want to be mindful of that as I continue my career," she says. "I know that little black girls are watching, and that's something that I pay attention to." 

Layne goes on to say she's thankful to live in a time where movies like Blackkklansman, Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You are being created because there's "no one way of being black."

"I think for a long time Hollywood — and media overall — presented it as if there was only one way to talk about the black experience, so I'm definitely very thankful to be at a time in Hollywood where all of that is being challenged." 

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