There’s a scene in If Beale Street Could Talk that I think about constantly. It’s brief and has no dialogue — the only words are those spoken by KiKi Layne in her narration as protagonist Tish Rivers, describing her experience as a young Black woman working the perfume counter in a fancy New York department store.
The first thing I noticed about Layne was her voice. She has the kind of shy, tentative intonation that, in any other actress, might suggest meekness — or even weakness. But in Beale Street, Layne delivers one of the most stunning, layered debut performances in recent Hollywood history. Underneath that demure exterior lies a steely core, more than able to cope with the injustice and tragedy that threatens to derail Tish’s life.
Layne has proved that she’s no one-hit wonder. She’s here to stay, and Hollywood will be all the better for it.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale Street is as much a Black woman’s coming-of-age tale as it is a love story. When we first meet Tish, it’s as one half of a pair. She and her lover, Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) are walking hand in hand in a dewy, cold Central Park, their coordinated blue and yellow outfits glowing in the bleak scenery. But Tish spends most of the film on her own, forced into adulthood by a surprise pregnancy, and Fonny’s wrongful incarceration on a rape charge. As the narrator, she’s our guide; we experience things through her perspective, whether it’s a white male customer lingering too long over her scented wrist, or the churning fear of telling her family that she’s expecting a baby. As the film unfolds, she grows from someone who waits for things to happen into a confident woman and mother who takes charge of her own fate.
And in many ways, that journey mirrors Layne’s real-life story. As a new, untested actress, the 27-year-old beat out 300 other women for this prestigious role (director Barry Jenkins’ followup to his Oscar-winning Moonlight). Amidst this meteoric rise Layne struggles with imposter syndrome. “Every time they announced new cast members, I was just like: ‘How did I get into this movie?” she recently told The Guardian. (If Oscar winner Regina King played your onscreen mother, you’d probably feel the same way.)
But she had no reason to fear. With upcoming roles in three major projects, including Native Son, one of Sundance’s buzziest films, Layne has proved that she’s no one-hit wonder. She’s here to stay, and Hollywood will be all the better for it.