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If Beale Street Could Talk’s Colman Domingo on how movie roles for black men are changing

The celebrated actor talks about reading James Baldwin, working with Barry Jenkins, and playing a loving, attentive father.

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk.
KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Annapurna Pictures

Colman Domingo is a celebrated American character actor, known for his work on the stage and in TV and film. You might recognize him from Passing Strange, Selma, or Fear the Walking Dead (on which he became the first actor in the Walking Dead universe to direct an episode of the show).

Now he has delivered a strong, devastating turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, the new film based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel and adapted and directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. Set in Harlem in the ’70s, it’s the story of two young people, Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) and Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), childhood friends who fall in love. Tish becomes pregnant, and they plan to get married, to the joy of the Rivers family and the chagrin of the pious, legalistic women of the Hunt family. But fate intervenes when Fonny angers a white policeman and is unjustly accused of assaulting a woman.

Domingo plays Tish’s father Joseph, a tender, supportive parent to Tish and her sister, and a loving husband to Sharon (Regina King). Joseph plays a key role in protecting Tish and Fonny’s relationship, reasoning with Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) about the pair’s relationship and caring for Tish when Sharon must make an important trip to Puerto Rico.

It’s a devastating and beautiful film, set in the past but with contemporary resonance, and it’s been critically lauded since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall. Touching on issues that have hardly gone away since Baldwin wrote the novel — race, policing, prison conditions, sexual assault — its story feels as fresh today as it did in the 1970s. And with honors from several critics’ groups and Golden Globes nominations for screenplay, director Barry Jenkins, and supporting actress Regina King, it’s a strong player going into awards season.

A few weeks after the film’s triumphant Toronto debut, I spoke with Domingo by phone about James Baldwin, Barry Jenkins, his own upbringing, and the ways black fathers are portrayed onscreen — as well as how those portrayals are changing. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

So what attracted you to playing Joseph?

Colman Domingo

Well, that’s a very easy question to answer. I got a call from my agent and Barry [Jenkins] respectfully asked me to audition. I actually auditioned for the role of [Fonny’s father] Frank, which is played so beautifully by Michael Beach. In something like 36 hours, I got a call with an offer to not play Frank but to play Joseph.

I was so beyond delighted. But, of course, I had to go back into the book and actually follow Joseph’s storyline, because I was so focused on Frank. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m still ecstatic, because I thought I understood the makings of Joseph — someone who’s grounded in so much love and grace and humor and a little ferocity.

I don’t think I’ve seen a character like that in a long time, especially when it comes to how black men are portrayed in film. He’s not a superhero. He’s an ordinary man doing something extraordinary, which is just surviving and making a way that’s even a little better for his children. He’s willing to do what he needs to do to put food on the table.

Kiki Layne and Colman Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk
Domingo plays Joseph, father of Tish (KiKi Layne), in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

Had you read the book prior to this project arriving on your radar?

Colman Domingo

Yeah, I read it in my 20s. I had to reread it. It’s not one of James Baldwin’s more popular books, wildly enough. So I better remembered Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain and more of his essays and some short stories, like “Sonny’s Blues.”

But when it comes down to If Beale Street Could Talk, I had to reread it. And it felt like I was reading it for the first time again, because it seemed wildly relevant. It felt like it was written today, you know?

Alissa Wilkinson

I do. I read it this summer when I knew the film was going to come out. When I describe the plot to people, they say, “Wait, it’s a period piece?” The story and the issues it touches seem incredibly contemporary.

Colman Domingo

Exactly. The only way you know it’s a period piece is some of the jive-talking that happens. You know what I mean? The slang of the 1970s. But otherwise, it’s beyond relevant.

Alissa Wilkinson

Since you read it when you were a younger man, then dove back into it for this movie, what struck you about the story as you revisited it?

Colman Domingo

You know what? The thing I was struck by the most is how beautifully James Baldwin writes about the bonds of brotherhood and about family, and about love. He writes these very raw characters that are just so complex, and they’re all fighting for their own humanity in some way. Even the Hunt family [which opposes the marriage] is fighting for their beliefs and what will keep them afloat in some way. And I love, as their opposition, the Rivers family. I love that James Baldwin is dissecting America, and I think he’s really doing it in a microcosm of this small family.

I also loved how he deals with the bond of sisterhood or brotherhood. That’s so necessary right now to see: the idea of people being out in the streets, up in arms, marching, protesting. But he also wraps the book in so much love. There’s so much love and support with this family. And I know that’s the lens that Barry saw this film in as well.

I think it’s just beautiful. A beautiful reminder that you need love in order to protest.

Tish and Fonny’s love story is the heart of If Beale Street Could Talk.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

When I saw the film, I watched it back-to-back with The Hate U Give, a movie that also has what feels like an unusually well-written role for a black father, played by Russell Hornsby. Both his character and yours are fierce but tender men with complex histories and complex stories. They break down the stereotypes about black men and black fathers that Hollywood has been willing to portray in the past.

How did you approach this character, getting inside of his motivations? As the story goes on, he does some things that I think will surprise audiences.

Colman Domingo

Yes. And that’s what I enjoy so much about it. I think that James Baldwin knows the complexities of African-American men, especially these blue-collar, hardworking men. We don’t usually see these guys. They’re so ordinary, in a strange way, but in their simplicity, they’re actually quite extraordinary.

I gleaned from the story that Joseph was a feminist. He empowers these young women in this home and is not afraid of his wife’s strength. He stays at home to nurture his pregnant daughter when his wife goes off to Puerto Rico. I think that tells you a lot about this man, that he’s very secure within himself.

I think it smashes the tropes that we see about African-American men in the inner city. I love that there’s no drugs and no real violence toward each other in our communities that’s in the book at all, or in the film. That’s the reality that I knew as well, growing up in inner-city Philadelphia — that there is so much complexity to these men. Because of their stick-to-it nature, the way they guide their families, the way they’re just simple providers, they’re actually superheroes to me.

I was inspired by my stepfather, who sanded hardwood floors for a living. My brother was a garbageman. I see how these men have very simple needs in this world — to just have children that do well, do better than them in some way.

They give all they have for their families, but they’re not usually depicted that way. It’s not as sexy, you know?

Alissa Wilkinson

And it’s not necessarily what audiences are expecting onscreen, precisely because they are accustomed to seeing the opposite onscreen, so they are surprised by it.

Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne, and Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne, and Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Annapurna Pictures

Colman Domingo

The moment that Joseph is responding to Tish’s pregnancy, people think he’s going to fly off the handle. And you wonder, why is that? Because they’ve seen that before. They think that’s exactly the way black men respond, with fire and butt-whooping, instead of actually being able to come to understand their children.

But that is something that I know so well. That’s the love I received as a child. I think we’re usually seeing other depictions of these men. And I’m happy that Joseph is around these days.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve had a very eclectic career; do you find yourself attracted to those kinds of characters?

Colman Domingo

I’m attracted to characters that I haven’t played before. So I’m very much a character actor. Joseph was a character that I’ve never played before that I fell in love with, and I wanted to find the way his body moves. The way he eats, the way he loves, the way he looks at his wife is different than any other character that I’ve played.

I had done a bunch of historical films back-to-back for a while, from Selma to The Butler to Birth of a Nation, and I was ready for something new. I know I have a sense of humor, and I also have some comedy chops, and it’s nice to use that once in a while. Joseph had all of it. He has humor, he has sensitivity, he has grace, he has fire, he has such charm. So I was happy to play all those notes.

Alissa Wilkinson

Part of what is so appealing about Barry Jenkins’s films, like Beale Street and Moonlight, is how you can feel almost tangible love in the way he shoots them — the way the characters look into the camera, the way their faces are framed. What’s it like working with him as an actor?

Colman Domingo

Barry is one of the most generous directors. He trusts his actors, first and foremost. He trusts you to make decisions, to do your research, to show up, to have an idea about the character, and then he gently guides you with the decisions you made. So he let Regina King and I do the work in figuring out our characters’ relationship, and then he trusted that work.

The film has been compared to jazz. I do feel that Barry directs as if he is a composer or an orchestrator. He knows his instruments and what he’s putting together. I had lots of space to create, and in doing that, I feel immense amounts of ownership of the role. And the same with Regina. I’m sure that Stephan felt the same way, and KiKi as well.

2018 Toronto International Film Festival - ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Premiere - Arrivals
Colman Domingo and Barry Jenkins embrace on the red carpet at If Beale Street Could Talk’s premiere in Toronto in September 2018.
Presley Ann/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

Right now it feels like things might be shifting in Hollywood regarding what kind of roles are available to actors who aren’t conventional white movie stars, or action stars, or whatever.

Colman Domingo

Oh, man. I do think we are in a state of change. I look forward to playing more roles where it’s not necessarily about the color of my skin — where it’s just about the character. I’ve been fortunate to do that on Fear the Walking Dead, to play a character who was not necessarily written as black. Of course, everything I bring to the character is that he’s black in every single way. But I think that’s important.

The truth is that if you put people of color in lead roles, the films do make money, and it’s not shocking. It always seems shocking and alarming to people. I’m tired of us being shocked and alarmed. It’s time for us to know that it’s just the norm.

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in theaters on December 14.

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