'Black Love In All Its Different Ways': Regina King On Her 'Beale Street' Role

Dec 15, 2018
Originally published on December 15, 2018 10:25 pm

Regina King appears in a new film which brings the searing social commentary of James Baldwin to the screen. If Beale Street Could Talk is based on Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name.

Beale Street is the story of two young lovers, Tish and Fonny, and their fight after Fonny is jailed for a crime he didn't commit. The movie is directed by Barry Jenkins — it's his first film since his Oscar-winning Moonlight.

King plays Sharon, the mother of Tish. Her performance in the role just won the prize for best supporting actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, as well as a nomination for a Golden Globe Award.

We spoke about her role in Beale Street, her evolving career and bringing about change in Hollywood.


Interview Highlights

On what attracted her to the Beale Street role

First of all, James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins — it really doesn't get better than that ... as an email in your inbox, you know? Yeah. So after reading the book and the script, I just felt like here was an opportunity to be a part of a piece that displayed black love in all its different ways — in all the nuances that come along with that. And Sharon just seemed to me to be this woman that — she and her husband Joe created this space that no shame lived there. There was no opportunity for shame to exist within their walls.

On the scene where Tish reveals her pregnancy to her mother

It's a special moment because so often in film and TV when a young person has become pregnant, the reaction from the parents — it's always negative. And here you have support. This young girl is about to become a mother, and instead of the family or the mother or the father saying, you know, "what the hell are you doing?" it's embracing her and loving on her. I think that's the reason why that moment sounds quiet when you're watching it. It is quiet — but it's so full.

On if she seeks more complex roles laden with social issues

I don't know how much I'm actively saying, "I just — I've got to find or be a part of a project that has that 'full' feeling." But I will say that I am looking for ... being a part of a story where my character is layered. You know, the complexities of being whatever human you are ... most recently, just being a black woman in America. And the roles that I've played over the past, I'll say, 12 years or so, you know, from Southland on to now, are — they are such different women, but they are all a product of their environment. And that product is not simple. It is complex. ... I feel as I grow as a human being, my capacity to be open to receive roles that are more complex has grown as well.

On her comment to Variety that the Netflix series Seven Seconds (a show in which she played an Emmy-winning role) "was not a black story," but "an American story"

We all have to take responsibility for, you know, where we are and who we are as a country. And the fact of the matter is: These things that James Baldwin was writing about 40-plus years ago are still the same things that we are talking about now. And it's kind of sad. And we have to understand that race, divisiveness because of skin color, race and colorism are a big part of the fabric of America. And so that's why I felt it was an American story.

On being outspoken about diversity in Hollywood — and then being recognized for her roles in driving change

I think there's a big part of that, that's: Yeah, that is how it's supposed to work, right? But we've just had, unfortunately, more examples or more experiences personally that it hasn't worked that way. You know, there's so often people who have been outspoken about things that are true, that are honest, have lost everything behind doing that, and there are those of us who have seen that happen. So you know, you can't help but be concerned about what may happen if you are open about your feelings or the pain that you are experiencing or have experienced. Because at the end of the day, you know, I'm a mother. I have a family. So me not being able to work affects more than just me.

So yeah, I was concerned about that, but there was something inside that felt like sending — that I was going to be OK, you know. May not win an award, but you'll still continue to work. And now on this side of it I feel like, "Wow, what a blessing." And when you talk about being a role model or setting an example, I feel so lucky that I get to be an amazing example for young women that you can speak your truth respectfully, and still win.

Robert Baldwin III and Gemma Watters produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we're going to talk about a new film that brings the searing social commentary of James Baldwin to the screen. It's called "If Beale Street Could Talk," and it's based on Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name. It's the story of two young lovers, Tish and Fonny, and their fight for their family and for Fonny's freedom after he is jailed for a crime he did not commit. The movie is directed by Barry Jenkins, his first film since his Oscar-winning "Moonlight."

We're going to speak now with actress Regina King, who plays the mother of the young Tish. And we should note, she just won Best Supporting Actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for that role. And she's with us now from New York. Regina King, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

REGINA KING: Thank you. So good to be talking to you.

MARTIN: And congratulations on this latest recognition in your remarkable career. And I want to talk about your career in a minute, but I'm going to start with the film. Tell me why you were attracted to this role.

KING: First of all, James Baldwin, Barry Jenkins, it really doesn't get better than that as an email in your inbox, you know.

MARTIN: How about that?

KING: Yeah. So after reading the book and the script, I just felt like here was an opportunity to be a part of a piece that displayed black love in all its different ways and all the nuances that come along with that. And Sharon just seemed to me to be this woman that - she and her husband Joe, they've created this space in - during the time that was extremely difficult to thrive and be black, where their daughters are thriving and have strong opinions and feel supported.

MARTIN: Let me play a clip that speaks to that, where your daughter - she's 19, Tish - tells you, Sharon, that she's pregnant by her boyfriend, the father of the baby, who's in jail for a crime he did not commit. I'm just going to play that short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK")

KING: (As Sharon) This is (unintelligible), and no, I ain't lost my mind. We are drinking to new life. Tish going to have Fonny's baby.

MARTIN: It's a short clip, but I just wanted to say that, again, it's a quiet piece. It's what we see, as well as what you say, that really carries the weight of the scene. And I just wanted to ask if you could just talk a little bit more about how you put that together.

KING: It's a special moment because, so often in film and TV, when a young person has become pregnant, the reaction from the parents, it's always negative. And here, you have support. This young girl is about to become a mother. And instead of the family or the mother or the father saying, you know, what the hell are you doing? It's embracing her and loving on her. I think that's the reason why that moment sounds quiet. When you're watching it, it is quiet, but it's so full.

MARTIN: Yeah, speaking of that, this film is personal, but I like the word you use - it's also full, right? It has many important issues in it, but it's still very sort of personal and intimate. And I'm looking at all of - a number of your recent roles. So many of your recent roles have been meaty in that way. They're full, like you just said, and carrying a lot of social issues with it. And I was wondering, you know, is this something that you are looking for now or is this something that finds you?

KING: I think it's a combination of both. I don't know how much I'm actively, like, saying, I just - I've got to be a part of a project that has that full feeling. But I will say that I am looking for being a part of a story where my character is layered - most recently, just being a black woman in America and the roles that I've played over the past, oh, say, 12 years or so, you know, from "Southland" on to now. They are such different women, but they are all a product of their environment. And that product is not simple, it is complex. And I feel, as I grow as a human being, my capacity to be open to receive roles that are more complex has grown as well.

MARTIN: You mentioned in an interview with Variety that you were happy when you won the Emmy for a Netflix series, "Seven Seconds," because it wasn't a black story, but an American story. And I was wondering if that's become important to you now as well.

KING: Absolutely. I mean, I think we have to take responsibility for where we are and who we are as a country. And the fact of the matter is, these things that James Baldwin was writing about 40-plus years ago are still the same things that we are talking about now. And it's kind of sad. And we have to understand that race, divisiveness because of skin color, race and colorism are a big part of the fabric of America. And so that's why I felt it was an American story.

MARTIN: You were among the people, I mean, there's been a lot of criticism of Hollywood in recent years. I mean, a number of, you know, people who are part of the artistic community have been outspoken about their concern that the community is not really reflecting the country as it is, that people of color, particularly women of color, have not been getting the recognition they deserve, and increasingly, they are.

You were one of the people who wrote a piece that got some attention, you know, raising this issue. I got the sense that you were concerned that there might be some backlash to that. And clearly there hasn't been, so it's kind of come full circle. I mean, you were part of the group of people saying that something needs to change. You've been part of the change, and now you're being rewarded for it. And I'm just - I don't - I wonder if that's complex in some way, or maybe it isn't. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to work.

KING: I think there's a big part of that, yeah, that is how it's supposed to work, right? But we've just have had, unfortunately, more examples or more experiences personally that it hasn't worked that way. You know, there's so often people who have been outspoken about things that are true, that are honest, have lost everything behind doing that. And there are those of us who have seen that happen.

So, you know, you can't help but be concerned about what may happen if you are open about your feelings or the pain that you are experiencing or have experienced because, at the end, of the day, you know, I'm a mother. I have a family. So me not being able to work affects more than just me.

So yeah, I was concerned about that. But there was something inside that felt like - that I was going to be OK, you know. Now, on this side of it, I feel like, wow, what a blessing. And when you talk about being a role model or setting an example, I feel so lucky that I get to be an amazing example for young women that you can speak your truth respectfully and still win.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. That's Regina King talking about her new role in the film "If Beale Street Could Talk." Regina King, thank you so much for talking with us.

KING: So good to talk to you. It's been a minute, but it's always good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.