The Richard Wright adaption of Native Son that debuted on April 6 on HBO, has a scene where Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, who plays the lead as Bigger Thomas, reflects on his own disillusion. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision,” he says, echoing the uncredited quote by Hellen Keller.
But at what point do we stop romanticizing lost young men and start honoring women with real vision?
Originally published in 1940, the fictional story of Bigger Thomas details how race dynamics and the wealth gap have always been an ever-present issue in America. But this intimate, textured story—which has been dubbed a paean to urban Blackness—also portrays a powerful testament to a Black woman’s love.
Bigger’s life is changed after he is hired as a chauffeur for an affluent businessman, and this power shift is measured by his girlfriend Bessie, played by KiKi Layne, the breakout star from If Beale Street Could Talk.
“You get to see Black love very differently, outside of the societal norms,” Layne tells Broadly. “This role felt right after Beale Street because it showcases the Black experience in a way we don’t often get to see.”
Layne is a Cincinnati-born actor who got her start in the Chicago theatre scene, her first TV role was in The Chi with Lena Waithe in 2015. She moved to Los Angeles and auditioned for Beale Street after helping a friend, who was auditioning for the lead role, by reading with him for his audition tape. Rather than just supporting her friend, she bit the bullet and decided to audition herself, leaving behind a retail job at Bed Bath & Beyond for a bright acting future ahead of her.
Layne plays a similar role to her Beale Street role; her character Bessie is the emotional support to a Black man who is faced with injustice and accusations.
“When men are put into these types of circumstances like Bigger in Native Son, or Fonny in Beale Street, it destroys relationships, their love, their relationships with their children—it’s under attack,” she says about both Black men in roles that have them up against the unjust legislative system. “It’s something we have to fight for in a way that other communities might not have the same struggles.”
But where do male directors—Rashid Johnson in this case—draw the line on a Black woman’s pain? There's a key moment in Native Son, as there is a revelatory moment in the struggle of a Black woman’s labor of love when grappling with Bigger’s actions.
“Women are caretakers who love everyone else before themselves,” Layne believes. “When does a woman decide to love herself more? There something special about that, we don’t always get to see that." But the power of love is steadfast in the face of injustice. “That is the thing that brought the Black community through so many of the hardships that we’ve faced historically. It’s the ability to love and laugh and experience joy still in so many ways.”
Layne’s vision as an actor goes beyond the next big thing. As the face of a recent Kate Spade campaign, and having landed a recent cover of the Hollywood Reporter, finding her own groove—and belonging—is about avoiding obvious casting roles. She’s already learning this as a 20-year-old actor.
“I became more aware of the limitations put on actresses that look like me,” says Layne. “It became clear my goal was to fight against those limitations and not play roles that typically darker skinned actresses with my texture of hair have been casted into.”
Layne spoke a little bit about this ahead of the Oscars last February, in regards to women of color not being recognized for their work. “There’s just such a lack of opportunities in terms of great roles for Black women, especially when you can look at women around my age,” Layne told The Independent at the time. “Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan—[they] have multiple Academy Awards and nominations. Then you look at these amazing actresses like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett—and they have one, maybe two nominations? [In Angela’s case] Not even a win?”
Though she is building upon the path that actresses like Davis and Bassett have paved, Layne is trying to break the barrier of her own. Layne wants to give back by producing and directing her own films. It’s all part of her vision to help other Black actors starting off in the industry. After all, it was only recently she was dubbed a ‘Hollywood novice.’
“We're seeing white actresses doing all these things and booking back to back amazing roles. But even though I haven’t seen that with someone like me, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It’s possible.”
Up next, Layne is starring in an action film alongside Charlize Theron called The Old Guard, a female-fronted action film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, coming out May 3. Taking this role after starring a film like Native Son was a way of sending a message to Hollywood.
“It’s not about opening a door and shutting it right behind you. I want to keep it open so others can come behind me.”