The Selma and Birth of a Nation star Colman Domingo plays Joseph Rivers, a father whose daughter must fight insurmountable injustice to save her love.
Adapted from the James Baldwin novel, the film tells the story of a young couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonnie (Stephan James) who must fight the corrupt system which has wrongfully imprisoned Fonnie as Kiki is pregnant with their child.
We spoke with Colman at London Film Festival, where we also spoke with Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell.
The father-daughter relationship in the film is so moving – how did you and Kiki [Layne] develop that intimacy?
It began very organically. We all did our research, we all read the book, we all got a lot of James Baldwin’s texts from other novels, essays, under our skin, so we knew the task at hand. And so we came in very open to one another, and we fell into each other’s arms. There was never any negotiation of exactly how we were going to do this, any questions – it just made sense, when I would reach out to hug her or hold her hand. We just started so organically, so by the time the cameras were rolling, we knew how to do it, and to have that intimacy, and that much love.
Knowing also that it was Kiki’s first film, I was also immediately very protective of her as a new artist in our industry, and I was looking out for her. And so I think that maybe that showed as well.
You know, you always bring a little bit of yourself to any role. I don’t have children, but I think I’m a really good uncle to a lot of great nieces, and they all look to me as sort of like a second dad, so this was my opportunity to really lean into my dad self, and Kiki responded in kind, and is just really the daughter I wish I had.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
I think there’s one thing in particular that stands out to me: the way that Barry [Jenkins] and James Laxton, our cinematographer, will hold unapologetically on the face of an African-American man. Because I think that is actually almost a revolutionary act. It’s held for almost too long sometimes, and I think – whether it’s their intention or not – that it’s daring you to look away from someone’s humanity.
Because when you look that close, and the camera is so unapologetically close, to the eyes and the nose and the lips of that beautiful African face of Stephan James, you can’t deny that human being. So hopefully that smashes tropes in your mind of what you think an African American man is – all those fear-based ideas of who we are. So that’s what I see, and seeing so much love and tenderness.
I keep going back to the character of Fonnie, the way that lovemaking scene takes my breath away, because it was the first time I’ve seen in recent memory, an African American man in cinema portrayed as being sensitive and delicate and asking permission, you know what I mean? And watching these black men shoulder each other, brother to brother, and there’s so much love.
Tish says that she’s pregnant and she’s received with love, and that messes people up. They think it’s going to go another way, they think they’ve seen this story before – you say something like that, there’s going to be trouble. But she’s met with love, so you understand the foundation that was built for Tish to fly in the world, and to go forward and try to save, and be a great ambassador for her incarcerated boyfriend. It’s because she was grounded with so much love from her father and her mother, who are African Americans. And this is very simply a story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and they happen to be black.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas from February 14th.