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New film star KiKi Layne of ‘Beale Street’? Yes, we love her

In this film, the innocence of black love in some ways counters the criminalization of blackness

As you likely know by now, KiKi Layne turned in a most excellent performance in Barry JenkinsIf Beale Street Could Talk. Folks are in awe of her dramatic delivery as lead character Tish, and even more so considering the fact that this is her first film.

Layne, 26, already has earned her first awards show nomination at the Gotham Awards last month, and surely there are more on the way. Much of what Layne is going through right now feels like what Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o experienced in the wake of her performance in Steve McQueen’s gripping 12 Years A Slave (2013). In Layne, we’re introduced to another young actor who brings emotionally layered context to a part of the black experience in a way that stays with you long after the credits roll.

“I’m just trying to soak it all in and take it one day at a time, because it can get overwhelming,” said the Cincinnati native. “There’s just so many new things happening so fast. … Even when people keep talking about awards season … I’m just like, ‘Well, right now, in this moment, and on today, this is what I’m taking care of.’ ”

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That game plan appears to be working out nicely. Beale Street, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 book of the same name, is finally out in limited release after much anticipation. The hype is merited — it’s already critically acclaimed, and even though it’s a ’70s story of a black man wrongly accused of a heinous crime, it’s eerily contemporary. Layne landed the role last fall after besting more than 300 women whom Jenkins auditioned for the part. He was blown away by Layne’s reading.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the most experienced actress or least experienced. If you give an audition or performance that shows me the character, then we’re gonna go down the road. And with KiKi, she just had this duality, where she could be very young, innocent,” Jenkins said. “So many of the things in the film she’s experiencing for the first time, and yet [the character] still often speaks, especially in the voice-over, with this voice of a woman, someone who’s evolved because of these experiences.”

Much of the storyline feels like it was written to reflect the headlines that dominate today’s news cycle. It’s one of the reasons the film resonates the way it does — and one of the reasons that, quite frankly, the film is so piercing and just gut-punches moviegoers the way that it does. But what overrides the trauma of being persecuted just for being black is an intensely gorgeous love story of a young black couple. In this film, the innocence of black love in some ways counters the criminalization of blackness.

“The way that James Baldwin is able to think about injustice and issues in the world and in the black community … it’s so special,” said Layne. “But then to see the way that he could talk about love, and that the love isn’t lost even though you see these people going through these really tragic circumstances, that is what stood out to me and made me like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be a part of this film.’ ”

Layne attended performing arts school in Cincinnati, starting when she was 7. She headed to Chicago to attend DePaul University and studied acting there. She had her family’s blessing from early on, and it mattered. “It’s cute to be doing it in elementary and high school,” said Layne, “but when you’re talking about spending thousands of dollars to do it, now hold on!”

Layne paid careful attention to Angela Bassett, Will Smith and, because she was obsessed with Brandy Norwood, Moesha. Seeing a young brown girl live out her performing arts dreams was inspirational. It let her know there might be space for her out there. Representation matters.

“I remember when everything was first happening for Lupita, what it meant to see someone who looked like me doing this on the level that I’d always dreamt of doing it,” Layne said. “And especially coming out and being a romantic lead, playing a character who is loved that much, for a black actress with my complexion doesn’t happen very often. … [As] Barry said at one of our Q&As recently, ‘It’s not lost on us, the power of the image of these two, young, chocolate people loving each other.’ ”

She noted that her hair is out in this film, that she barely has on any makeup in the film. “It’s not lost on me that there are black girls out there that are going to see that, and I hope they recognize that they deserve to be loved that hard.”

And like Nyong’o, she’s being well-received by a fashion world historically unkind to black women — and dark-skinned black women in particular. “That still is definitely something that wows me. Every single time I wear some of these designers, I’m like, ‘What? Do they know who I am? OK, cool.’ It’s not lost on me the lack of images of black women who look like me being in these types of gowns and living in them and living in ourselves.”

And Beale Street isn’t the only project she has on deck. In 2019 comes Native Son, from beloved scribe Richard Wright. It’ll be a modern reimagining of the much-studied novel. That film is done and will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “The thing most important to me,” said Layne, “is just trying to broaden my audience, because definitely Beale Street and Native Son speak to basically the same audience. I want a career that’s filled with variety, all types of roles, because that’s the fun of acting.”

In truth, there’s no real way to prepare for going from obscurity to overnight marvel, but Layne is on top of it. “The thing that I’m getting reminded of by family, friends, supporters, cast members, is that if I wasn’t supposed to be here, then I wouldn’t be here. If God hadn’t blessed me, equipped me with the things that I needed to succeed on this level, then I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I am where I am prepared to be.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.