For 12 minutes in Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Brian Tyree Henry appears as a character by the name of Daniel Carty. His character is fresh out of jail and runs into his good friend Fonny (Stephan James) on the streets of New York. The two go back to Fonny’s apartment and share a moment that is not only an emotional touchstone in the film but an exchange of words that speaks volumes for the narrative and the current social landscape. It’s two black men being vulnerable as they have a poignant conversation about Daniel’s time in jail and the oppression and pain that comes with incarceration — specifically for black men. Henry’s sequence is essentially a short film within Jenkins’s breathtaking and socially relevant award season favorite, marking a watershed moment for the actor showcasing the impact he is capable of… in less than 15 minutes.
In Annapurna Pictures’ Beale Street, the story hops back and forth in time following the aforementioned Fonny and his fiance Tish (Kiki Layne). When Fonny is wrongfully charged for a crime he did not commit, Tish and her family work to clear his name — a storyline that is all-too-familiar for 2018. For Henry, he comes in halfway through the film to deepen insight into the story.
“It’s enough to be a whisper but enough to leave like a heaviness, and alone,” Henry told Deadline about his scenes in Beale Street. He said that Jenkins created a high level of intimacy while filming these particular scenes by removing the normal elements of a busy set from that room so that it was just Henry and James sitting, talking and sharing this very intense moment as brothers.
“To me, it is a love scene because it’s this moment between these two black men, one who wasn’t free, and one who is free but still isn’t free,” Henry points out. “You are watching these two men trying to embrace the freedom that they have or knowing that they don’t have any…and then you have one that literally got his freedom taken away from him to be released to a world where his freedom is still not there. And at the end of the day it’s just supposed to be a moment between these two friends.”
The scene goes beyond adding layers to a film that is cloaked in layers of feelings. Henry points out that it puts men — black men, specifically — in a different light when it comes to emotions. “I think that we are so afraid in this society to really let men be affectionate, or let men embrace each other, and even if we tell them that we’re weak, there’s something that comes along with that,” he explains. “And that’s kind of where I want to come through and knock this fucking wall down…at the end of the day, we have had a lot to bear.” He says that we are beyond that and that expressing emotion is paramount. “I don’t want to be in a generation where I have a lack of emotion, understanding, and feeling”
Daniel’s place in the story comes even more into focus as he is a representation of how the black community suffers and what they go through. When Tish enters the picture and the three have dinner, Henry says that Daniel reminds Tish and Fonny to “cherish these moments and cherish these things around you, because there’s another part of this world out there that just does not want us merely because of the color of our skin.” And just like Daniel represents a reminder to Tish and Fonny, Henry says the couple returns the favor by reminding Daniel of what “the joy of black love can be.”
Having played James Baldwin in a piece by Anna Deavere Smith titled Public Forum: Talking About Race (by the way: he received a Tony nomination for his role in Lobby Hero on Broadway) and being very familiar with his novels, plays, and essays beyond Beale Street, Henry has a deep connection with the iconic writer. “One thing that I love about Baldwin is the rawness of which he expresses himself, but the actual complete articulation of how he does it and how precise he does it,” he said. “He pierces through you… what I learned when I played him is that there is no word that’s chosen by accident.”
Beale Street continues Jenkins’s crusade of nuanced representation in cinema that is reflected in last year’s Moonlight as well as his feature Medicine for Melancholy. It also reflects Henry’s choices as an actor and a storyteller. In addition to Beale Street, Henry stars in the game-changing FX series Atlanta and also stars in two award season contenders: Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, two films that flip genres on their head when it comes to inclusive storytelling.
In 20th Century Fox’s Widows, Henry plays a corrupt crime-boss-turned-politician — a wildly different character than in Beale Street. In Sony’s eye-popping animated feature Spider-verse, he plays the father of the titular hero-in-training. But there’s something more to these movies and why Henry was drawn to the projects.
With the heist thriller Widows, he points out it’s led by a cast of women which includes Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo, each playing diverse roles across the board. In Spider-verse, the masses are introduced Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino iteration of the titular web-slinging superhero. Beale Street and the two movies are more than just a checkbox to meet Hollywood’s quota of inclusion. For Henry, it’s a storytelling landscape where the characters are not just represented but represented fully — and his choice to put himself in these places isn’t by coincidence. “That’s the kind of connective thread that I want to do within my career,” he said. “Because it’s one thing to show us, but it’s how you show us and how you tell our stories.”
Born Fayetteville, North Carolina and raised in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, Henry said that his dream as an actor is to “continue to play characters that have these different walks of life that are different from mine.”
He avoids staying stagnant and playing a specific kind of role. “There are so many different representations of black men out there, so many different relationships between us and I really wanna explore that,” he explains.
After a beat, he points out how no one ever questioned Daniel Day-Lewis’s choice to play Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln or Christy Brown in My Left Foot. He chooses roles like those “because he’s a great actor and can bring character work to life.” Henry hopes to be in that position but knows that he has to work harder.
“I’m not the aesthetic of what most of these leading men look like, I’m not from the same walk of life as them, but at the end of the day these characters and people exist — in my world at least,” he said. “I want to continue to do something that would show all those sides.”
To further diversify his resume, Henry will next star in Godzilla vs. Kong in a role that he said: “couldn’t be more perfect right now.” With Beale Street, Widows, Spider-verse, and now Godzilla, Henry’s choices are an interesting and encouraging progression in the types of projects he stars in. It’s part of his way of working — or as he likes to call it: a “see” moment.
“There’s nothing better to me than that moment — not the ‘I told you so’ moment, but what I call the ‘see’ moment,” he explains. Henry, who admits he has had many people say he wouldn’t make it far as an actor, describes the “see” moment as “when somebody does something that you know is completely anti of what you told them to do and it doesn’t work in their favor and you just sit back and go, ‘see?’.”
“I live for stuff like that and so, that’s kind of what this universe is that has been created in this story now,” he smiles. “That’s kind of where I’m at in my life. I’m at the ‘see’ moment.”
“I’ve been saying this lately — I should stop saying it,” Henry continues with a laugh when he talks about the projects he hopes to be part of. “I wanna be like the Lowry Seasoning Salt — put Lowry’s on anything and it makes it taste better, makes it taste good.”
This brings us back to Beale Street. Henry definitely adds some flavor to the drama with a role that is not only a critical moment in the film but also resonates and lingers on the palate. His 12-minute performance could easily join the ranks of minimal screen-time performances that have been praised and lauded — much like Viola Davis’s punch-you-in-the-gut 8-minute performance in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt in 2008. Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and because of the comparison, many people think that Henry might join his Widows co-star in a class of actors who have received nominations for making the most of their small amount of time on screen. Even so, Henry is aware of the buzz but is a little superstitious and cautious when it comes to talking about accolades.
With the loss of his mother, Henry admits that the last two years of his life have been tough to maneuver and have a sense of happiness, but he powers through. “I was alone last night and I was thinking, ‘Okay, man, you’ve been nominated for an Emmy this year, a Tony this year, and now people are talking the O word,'” he shared. “And really I’m afraid to say the whole word because I don’t want to jinx myself, but they’re talking about the O word and to me, I still haven’t even had a chance to savor what that is. Like, I haven’t really had a chance to savor what it was like to sit next to Megan Mullally at the Emmys, you know what I mean?”
He continues, “I haven’t had a chance to savor all these things that have happened because I’ve kind of been bouncing onto the next — which is the best problem to have…but I think that that’s how you can kind of get lost in the track of what all this is.”
He is extremely thankful for his career, but he talks about living in the moment and savoring it — whether that be grief or happiness. He’s still trying to find space to savor all these moments.
“I just have to find a way to express it and show it,” he says, “but if these stories are continuing to come my way then I’m assuming that there’s a reason that that’s happening — and I’ve just got to work it out that way.”