Snubbed by the Oscars, new powerhouse Stephan James is about action — and activism
The ‘Beale Street’ actor is part of a cultural shift in Hollywood
The fact that … Beale Street exists and Black Panther exists, and BlackKkKlansman exists all at the same sort of time. All telling very diverse levels of our stories at the highest sort of level. We get to see how profitable we are.
— Stephan James
At the start of awards season, it was inspiring to think of the full cast of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk gracing the Academy Awards stage, happily accepting the Oscar for best picture.
Well, that’s not happening. The film was snubbed at nominations time for that honor, and Stephan James, who beautifully portrayed the falsely accused Fonny, was left out of the field of best actor Oscar nominees. The film is up for adapted screenplay, and it’s the first English-language adapted work of the great James Baldwin — but to ignore the grace, humility and beauty of this film feels … empty. But at 25, and with several impactful roles under his belt, James’ journey is only just beginning.
James’ true Hollywood story began on the football field.
After doing a Canadian rite of passage, an acting stint on the long-running Degrassi High, he came upon a script for a film called When the Game Stands Tall, a movie about California’s De La Salle High School football team, which had gone on a crazy 13-year winning streak.
In the film — which was released in 2014 and stars Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis — James portrayed running back T.K. Kelly, who dreams of playing for the University of Oregon but who, tragically, is killed right before graduating.
“It was interesting,” James said, leaning across the table at a restaurant inside one of Hollywood’s tonier hotels. “It being a true story, I had a lot of his friends and his family talk to me on set. … It just really put into my perspective the power of art … [like] ‘Wow. We’re not only a making a movie. We’re changing people’s lives.’ And it … became bigger than acting.”
And what James has given us since then has definitely been bigger than acting. James is a huge part of making the horror of blackness being criminalized in Baldwin’s period piece feel contemporary. And he’s also instrumental in bringing to life a beautiful, brown-skinned Romeo and Juliet-like love story.
It all but appears that Regina King (who co-stars as his future mother-in-law) will grace the Academy Awards stage, but it feels unsettling that James, newcomer KiKi Layne (as his lover, Tish) or Jenkins himself won’t be pondering what they might say should their names be called for acting or directing honors at this year’s show.
But James, who really kicked things into high gear post-Beale, hasn’t spent much time thinking about the omission. He’s too busy shooting an action film with Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman: 17 Bridges, out later this year. And he co-stars alongside Oscar winner Julia Roberts in Homecoming, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe.
And before that? You’ve seen him as the legendary Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race. You’ve seen him alongside Sanaa Lathan in Reggie Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2017 limited Fox series Shots Fired as a former baseball player turned Department of Justice lawyer. And you also saw him portraying civil rights icon John Lewis in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
The connective tissue of a lot of James’ work feels like activism. Some of it is quiet — some of it is just a kind of presence — but viewers tend to end up walking away with something profound. “I’m not an activist. I’m not a politician,” James said. “But there are things that I feel strongly about and … my art is the best way I can express that. I believe in art that reflects life and society. The two ought to mirror each other.”
He added: “Everything I’ve done has been conscious and deliberate, never just done something to do it. [There] was always some sort of calculation behind it. I don’t want to just make any kind of film. I’m about storytelling, and what better way to tell stories than to shift the spectrum of how people might think, and touch the human in a way that only art can do.”
That’s a privilege not often afforded black actors. Often what we see are one-note characters. We’re seeing James play in spaces that we don’t often get to see other actors play in — and that feels like culture shifting. Kind of like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Beale Street all nominated in some fashion, in the same year, in Hollywood.
“Everybody has a choice. These are just the stories I choose to tell,” said James. “No matter the medium, no matter the platform, there are just so many different stories to be told. I want to personally be responsible for telling many of them. Because I understand … what it means to be black. [I can] lean into that, or tap into that and tell black stories. But I’m not a black actor. I’m just an actor who happens to be black. I just want to tell all different types of stories. I want to be, like, Batman. I want to be characters that we’ve never seen.”
And 2019 will be major for James. He’s getting the looks he should be getting. The appropriate mainstream Hollywood magazines are putting him on their gatefold covers, and the industry is paying attention to the choices he’s making and the work he’s doing. “It feels important. I’m at this space where I’m working harder than I ever have,” said James. “Everything [is] just so extremely surgical at this point. Just making sure I do things the right way and not … worry about the shadow of my career … but just be strong and continue to find things that inspire me. That’s where it starts … and keep it growing from there.”