“So when I got to do the scene with Steph[an James] here, I’m still shocked by how it came out because I literally do not remember the cameras being anywhere in this room,” he continued, describing the pivotal scene in which Daniel tells Fonny about the terrors of incarceration and injustice before the latter is framed. “It was a scene between us just, like, talking about what this sorrow is that we carry and what this heaviness is that we carry, this weight that we carry as black people and not only just black people but people in the system, and at this time in the world.”
Like Karefa-Smart, Henry spoke about the impact of seeing a resolutely black romance at a time when love—that dangerous, radical act—feels so rare. “I think about my younger self looking at movies and knowing that I’ve never seen and experienced a black love like this ever onscreen, and it just is a humbling experience,” he continued. “I’m looking in this audience now and seeing my peers and seeing the mixture of colors and races and sexes—and we’re in the Apollo Theater celebrating this amazing man, this humanitarian, this activist, this human being, James Baldwin, and it just was a no-brainer to be part of it.”
Stephan James, whose piercing eyes won over the fastidious Jenkins despite the novel’s description of Fonny as a light-skinned man, echoed Henry’s sentiments. James had previously acted alongside Colman Domingo, who plays Tish’s father in Beale Street, as well as Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother. Joining the two once more felt akin to a family reunion for him, he said. The components of Beale Street came together to form an undeniable opportunity for the young actor. “The marriage of a James Baldwin and a Barry Jenkins,” he listed, “ … the work that Baldwin has already put on the page for us, just made it so easy to transition into a situation like this.”
James also took the time to praise his costar, the transcendent newcomer KiKi Layne, whose performance as Tish grants Beale Street a gravity and gentleness that channels Baldwinian duality. “I’m just so grateful to have had KiKi Layne as my scene partner for all those moments. You were so incredible, you displayed so much strength,” James said before pausing to accommodate the audience’s rapturous applause. “And you really put this film on your back, so congratulations, I’m really proud of you.” For her part, Layne thanked the rest of the cast for nurturing her as she took on the pressure of a lead role. “This was my introduction [to] doing film on this level,” the theater actor said. “Everyone on this stage was just so supportive and took such good care of me.”
At the after-party following the Apollo screening, held at the Lenox Avenue mainstay Red Rooster, cast members and crew drank and danced alongside audience members. Macaroni and cheese, hot honey chicken, cornbread madeleines, and grits nourished the filmgoers who’d been physically (and emotionally) spent.
The star-studded affair included appearances from actors like the Orange Is the New Black alum Samira Wiley, the Hamilton and Blindspotting ingenue Jasmine Cephas Jones, the Cool Runnings legend Malik Yoba, and Wyatt Cenac, who played one of the leads in Medicine for Melancholy. Domingo gleefully explained the significance of the Gucci crown he wore for the evening. Henry’s Atlanta costar Lakeith Stanfield and his partner, the actress Xosha Roquemore, Milly-rocked by the bar. Fans and friends alike took selfies and recorded GIFs in the photo booth.
Still, the night felt devoid of hierarchies. At the Apollo—and for the rest of the night—we were just Baldwin’s people. And Beale Street brought us all home.