Stephan James talks Beale Street, black love and masculinity

Stephan James talks Beale Street, black love and masculinity

CHALLENGING PERCEPTIONS: Stephan James as Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk

FOR STEPHAN James the opportunity to play a prominent part in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, was one that he couldn’t pass up.

“I think James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins are two of the most beautiful descriptors of love ever,” he tells The Voice.

As well as getting to work with the renowned director behind the Oscar-winning Moonlight on an adaptation of a novel by the lauded writer and activist, James was also able to bring a rarely seen characterisation of black people to the big screen. It’s part of what made the role unmissable for the Toronto-born actor.

“It felt like I would be a part of telling a story that’s never been told in this way before, that we’ve never seen in cinema, that I would be able to bring a level of humanity, I mean all of us would, bring a level of humanity to these characters who are fictional characters but represent very real people and very real circumstance,” he says.

In If Beale Street Could Talk, James plays Fonny, a young man who, after a run-in with a racist police officer, finds himself imprisoned on a charge of rape that he didn’t commit. His arrest and imprisonment comes just as his romantic relationship with girlfriend Tish, who he’s been close with since childhood, is blooming. Tish falls pregnant and Fonny finds out he is going to be a father while he’s in prison, news that is both heartbreaking due to his lack of freedom but also a beacon of hope for them both.

As James says, the fictional story of what befalls Fonny and Tish, could very much be a real story of its time but more than that, it’s also not dissimilar to the experiences of many ordinary black people today.

But first and foremost, this is a story about two people who are in love. A love so powerful that it empowers them to hold each other up and face and fight the cards they are dealt.

“These issues from 1974 still resonate so heavily today in [2019] and the thing about Baldwin is, first of all, I believe this story is a love story, the social commentary and the speaking on the injustices that’s secondary – it’s a love story,” James says.

The 25-year-old is thoughtful, eloquent and passionate discussing both aspects of the narrative – the social injustice side and the striking depiction of black love.

“I think that Tish and Fonny, they’re not lovers…they’re literal soulmates and you’ve never seen that on screen, I’ve never seen that on screen, black soulmates like that,” he says.

“A film like this is revolutionary because you get to see and show people look, we love like this too. There’s a system in place that is attacking this love every single day, that’s threatening these lives every [single day],” he adds.

When the young couple are separated as a result of Fonnys incarceration, their intimacy isn’t communicated through touch. But one of the standout scenes where it is, takes place at Fonny’s place where Tish loses her virginity to him.

Love scenes in films are notoriously never as sensual and natural behind the scenes as they appear on screen. But in Beale Street, attention was paid creating this tangible authenticity, a quality Jenkins has proven he’s adept at orchestrating in his films.

“Any director could have skipped Fonny undressing Tish and just went straight into the lovemaking, Barry Jenkins decided to leave the camera at two shot, let the moment live for five minutes while I slowly undress KiKi, Tish, so to be able to see the little nuances in that, like, that’s gold, that’s gold for any young man watching to see that and appreciate that to see what that looks like, beautiful thing,” James says.

Speaking of the scene, Jenkins told Life & Style: “When Tish and Fonny make love, the patience, the tenderness of the buildup to it was much more important to be than the carnal details of the actual lovemaking.”

Jenkins like Baldwin has used his work to showcase the multifaceted nature of being a black man. Challenging perceptions of black masculinity and giving agency to characters that have and express their vulnerabilities. Fonny is an artist, carefully carving pieces out of wood, he also shares a deep friendship with Daniel (played by Bryan Tyree Henry). The audience is allowed to privy as the pair open up about their deepest fears and, in the case of Daniel who reunites with Fonny after time in prison, traumatic experiences.

“We don’t get to see black men like that, especially black men who have been criminalised. We don’t get to see them have conversations like that,” James says.

This treatment of masculinity is something that James wants black men in particular to pay attention to.

“I want them to see that it’s OK to be vulnerable, that whatever perceptions or ideologies that they had about what they’re supposed to be is a facade, it’s not real, you can be this and if you’re this that’s OK. I want them to see what real love looks like, soulmates – what does that look like, what does it look like to truly care about your partner?” he says.

What will he take away from the experience?

“I think I’ve learned about love in a way that I never saw it before. I’ve learned about patience from Barry. Ultimately I’m just grateful, really just grateful to be a part of something that…feels like I’m going to bring a voice to so many voiceless young men across the country across the world who are experiencing this sort of thing,” he says.

In 2019, such complex and nuanced depictions of black men as are seen in Beale Street are still rare, despite talk of Hollywood’s new approach to representation and a black renaissance in film.

While positive about the progress, James, who has spent 10 years working in the industry, says he absolutely wants to see more.

“I think that it’s a beautiful time where BlacKkKlansman can exist, and Black Panther can exist and Beale Street can exist and Widows can exist and Sorry to Bother You can exist all in the same, like, stratosphere that’s a great thing, but make no mistake, we still have a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do,” he says.

While it’s hard to argue with James, with his spectacular and sensitive embodiment of Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk, he’s definitely adding his name to the list of black talent that are instrumental in changing the narrative.

If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas now

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