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Barry Jenkins and Stephan James on Beale Street’s Most Devastating Scene

stephan james kiki layne brian tyree henry beale street movie
Stephan James, KiKi Layne, and Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk. Photo: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

When If Beale Street Could Talk’s Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) run into Fonny’s old friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) on the streets of Harlem, Tish isn’t exactly pleased. Daniel is grinning and gregarious, and Tish already knows her day with her boyfriend has turned into a boy’s night. Fonny smiles wide when he sees his friend, cajoles the three of them into a cab to go downtown and have dinner together at his apartment. Tish exits the scene to prepare dinner, and one of the best scenes of If Beale Street Could Talk begins.

When they get to Fonny’s, Daniel surveys his friend’s sculptures — his apartment, his life — and the two of them sit down, talking in circles, in loose, relaxed loops, about Fonny and Tish’s apartment search. But after a few minutes, they’re talking about racism; after a few more minutes, they’re talking plainly about the fear and trauma of being black and living in a country that’s hostile toward them every day. It’s a powerful, deeply felt scene, scored by Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green.” “In film-speak, it’s like they’re spending an entire day together,” director Barry Jenkins told me about the scene. “And over the course of that day, they can truly reveal who they actually are, they can truly reveal their full humanity.”

The way Jenkins’s deceptively plain filmmaking gives Fonny and Daniel the space to meander through a conversation about their gifts and traumas is sublime to watch. In a sense, the scene feels like Beale Street’s thesis: The plot is driven by the romance between Fonny and Tish, but Beale Street is sustained by the love between families, between friends, by the way Baldwin’s text shows black people taking care of one another.

Daniel and Fonny start the scene talking about everything but Daniel’s time in prison. Later, it becomes the only thing they can talk about — and they’re both shuddering. “There’s this thing that black men do when we see each other where we put on a good face, as white folks say. What I loved about the opportunity we had with this scene was, yeah, we put on a good face, but when you spend more time we say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ ‘I’m good.’ We keep talking and it becomes ‘Oh, I’m good and …’” Jenkins said. “We keep talking, have a few drinks, have a few smokes, and it’s ‘I’m good, but …’ We continue talking and it’s ‘I’m not really good … With all the traumas that these young men face, we see that Daniel’s out and assume he’s not dealing with that trauma anymore. No! It’s still a part of him. It’s in his body; it’s in his DNA.”

Henry flew up from the set of Atlanta to film the scene, on the movie’s last day of production in New York. Much of Beale Street was filmed with two cameras, but Jenkins felt this was one of the scenes that only needed one. “I started to realize that the power in the scene was in the energy between Stephan and Bryan. When you’re filming with two cameras, it’s like my energy is going into one camera; your energy is being captured by another camera,” he explained. Cutting between the shots didn’t feel authentic to the moment. “The trauma that Brian has experienced as the character Daniel, Fonny can feel that. That’s why he’s invited him into his home. That’s why he’s treating himself to open himself, to share. Instead of cutting between that energy, we’re passing it back and forth.” The scene feels different visually, but almost imperceptibly: There are a few cuts, but the conversation doesn’t feel jagged. The men move from one subject to the next, getting more and more intimate with every sentence. Fonny doesn’t know exactly what Daniel has seen, and he doesn’t ask him to explain, but eventually they’re talking about living with the same fear, every day. It’s tender filmmaking, to a devastating end.

“For me, that moment was a moment of true black love, of black brotherly love,” James told Vulture. “That’s something that we don’t really get to see too often. It was a moment that Daniel could be vulnerable with his brother, to tell him the truth, that he’s been scared, that he’s petrified of his experiences while incarcerated.”

Watching this scene, I was reminded of one of my favorite moments in the third act of Moonlight. Childhood friends Black (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) stand in the kitchen of Kevin’s small apartment. Their conversation is more loaded than Fonny and Daniel’s, with the awkwardness that comes from being onetime lovers; both are feeling out how their reunion will turn out. Kevin says he has a son now, and 18 months left on his probation. Black sighs and shakes his head, mumbling a curse. Kevin gives him a satisfied smile: “Yeah, but it’s a life,” he says. “I ain’t never had that before.” The moment doesn’t build to the same sort of terror that Henry lays bare in his performance, but it carries the same gentle build. These scenes are quiet, but revelatory in both instances: In both movies, they’re opportunities for two black men to talk about their feelings.

It’s a scene that makes my eyes sting with tears every time I watch it, both because of the emphasis Kevin puts on “life,” and because of the way he’s so proud of everything he has, no matter how humble. The first half of the Beale Street conversation between Daniel and Fonny gets at the same essential idea: Fonny, like Kevin, is building a life for himself, as an artist and as a husband.

Colman Domingo, who plays Tish’s father, Joseph, drew yet another parallel: He saw a deep similarity between the Daniel Carty scene and a scene he shares with Michael Beach (who plays Fonny’s father, Frank). In Beale Street, he and Frank are putting their heads together at a bar, trying to figure out how to scrape enough money together to pay for Fonny’s legal defense. “I know some hustles, and you know some hustles … These are our children. We’ve got to set them free,” Domingo, as Joseph, says.

“There’s so much depth of love there. I’m able to say that I love him so deeply that his child is my child, that my family’s plight is for his child. That’s not even my blood relative,” Domingo told Vulture. “We’re used to seeing antagonistic relationships between black men. [Fonny] is not even my blood relative. But I love him because that’s my best friend’s son. It shows the love of black men and what we do for each other, especially when one can’t do for himself. I’ll take over for you — and I’ll empower you to do that.”

Barry Jenkins and Stephan James on Beale Street’s Best Scene