When Brian Tyree Henry appears on screen 45 minutes into “If Beale Street Could Talk,” his character’s name, Daniel Carty, has been mentioned once. When Fonny runs into his old friend, he brings Daniel downtown to his artist’s studio/dilapidated basement apartment. Catching up over beers and cigarettes, Daniel reveals he is still recovering from his two years in prison, from which he was released only three months ago.
“When you’re in there, they can do with you whatever they want. Yeah, I mean, what-ever they want,” said Daniel (Henry), adding he now understands why Malcolm X referred to white men as the devil. “Some of the things I’ve seen… I’ll be dreaming about it until the day I die.”
The lines from James Baldwin’s book, which the film is based on, are poignant, but the emotion Henry fills them with is overwhelming. In the safety of an old friend he reveals a piece of his pain, but it’s the terror that audience can see the character struggling to keep at bay that is so powerful. Henry shows us a man who has been broken, haunted by that unspecified horror of what happened to him in prison.
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It’s a performance so powerful it lingers over the entire movie. That horror in Henry’s eyes, the fear he describes feeling, stays present in Tish (listening from the kitchen) and the audience’s thoughts for the rest of the film as Fonny is imprisoned. Director Barry Jenkins, who adapted Baldwin’s book, was depending on it.
“Brian does this wonderful job of showing he and Fonny are in the same [place],” said Jenkins in an interview with IndieWire. “He reveals these scars and hopefully the scene hangs over the rest of the film so you understand this is the fate that is waiting to befall Fonny. I think an audience sits there and they’re all collectively hanging in this emotion as well.”
Later in the film, when Tish visits Fonny in jail — like Daniel, falsely accused — we see a blood clot in his Fonny’s eye. It’s a moment at one early screening that caused a woman in the audience to loudly gasp, giving sound to the reaction each viewer is feeling. Recalling the moment, Jenkins knew the gamble of how he structured the story had paid off: “Even though we don’t show what happens to him, she (the gasping audience member) felt what happened to him.”
In other words, the audience is filling in the blanks with the power of Henry’s performance. From Tish’s POV, we don’t see what’s happening to Fonny behind bars on the other side of the glass, but we instinctively have Daniel’s pain and fear at the forefront of our minds. It’s a performance that has lingered in Henry as well, a year after giving it.
“Daniel was a role that has kind of been by my side,” said Henry. “The only thing that I really wanted to keep in mind when I was doing that scene was that these words could be me. I could end up saying this exact same thing to somebody. I think the statistic is that one in every three black men will end up being in jail. One in three, you know? That kind of awareness that that could be me, sat with me. It scared the shit out of me to know that this conversation could be a conversation I could end up having with somebody one day.”
When he finally saw his performance in September at the Toronto Film Festival premiere, Henry realized he didn’t even remember the camera, which pans back and forth between him James in the scene. Jenkins had cleared the set and left cinematographer James Laxton with the two actors. Jenkins said he was trying to capture the scene in a way that gave the impression this was something men can only say to each other, and in a moment where they are extremely comfortable and assume no one else is listening.
“That’s the great thing about working with Barry because he just allows you to explore, he gets excited watching the actors explore,” said Henry. “He said, ‘I had to back away and just let you two have that moment,’ and it’s just fantastic that there was such care in this movie. There was such awareness and presence of Barry, but it wasn’t easy. It was really hard to have to deal with the actuality and reality of what Danny’s life was and what his outcome could be.”
By definition, what Henry does in “Beale Street” is give the ultimate supporting performance. His appearance on screen pulls emotions that are instilled in Tish and Fonny’s story. His fear become Tish’s, his unspoken pain and horror becomes Fonny’s. Like Mahershala Ali’s Oscar-winning performance in Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” Henry’s presence informs and emotionally colors the film long after he last appears on screen.
Ali though, when he was on screen in the first chapter of “Moonlight,” was a lead in one third of the movie. He qualified as supporting because of his screen time. Oscar prognosticators dismiss, probably rightly, Henry’s chances at an Oscar nomination: He only has 13 minutes on screen, and he is not a complicated lead villain (Michael B. Jordan in “Black Panther”), or even the non-protagonist second lead like Ali in “Green Book,” or Timothee Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy.” So crazy has the category become, Annapurna and the “Beale Street” team had to seriously strategize if James, one half of the “Beale Street” love story, should be put put forward as Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor.
Oscar campaigning and madness aside, Henry is 2018’s Best Supporting Actor.