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Exclusive: KiKi Layne On How Faith Helps Her Overcome Self-Doubt

"Faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck."

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KiKi Layne was destined to be here. When helping a friend prepare for an audition in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, the Cincinnati native stumbled across the opportunity of a lifetime and hasn't slowed down since. Beyond lighting up screens as Tish in the James Baldwin adaptation, KiKi has starred in HBO's take on Richard Wright's Native Son and is now ready to bare her range in the newest Netflix original, The Old Guard (July 10).

In the action film, directed by Love & Basketball's Gina Prince-Bythewood, KiKi takes on the role of Nile, a U.S. Marine whose world takes a drastic turn the moment she discovers she's immortal and collides with an intimate camp of mercenaries wielding the same superpower.

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It's KiKi like we've never seen her before, yet the exact shot she's been longing to take.

"There is so much that Black women have to offer and are capable of, and Hollywood does not always make space for that--and the world in general," she tells xoNecole. "I would hope that, wherever my career goes, that even just a handful of Black women can feel encouraged to not accept those limitations, to not accept those boundaries, to not believe that those things can keep us boxed in."

In this xoChat, KiKi dishes on the role faith plays in her career, lessons learned on set, and her undying commitment to represent the fullness of Black women on screen.

xoNecole: When people think of you, they think of your breakout role as Tish in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'. As sudden as your success in Hollywood seems, some people might miss that you set your eyes on becoming an actress long before that moment. When did you embrace your calling as a creative? 

KiKi Layne: Oh, that was when I was a little girl. I always knew that I was going to act and be in entertainment. I started going to a performing arts school when I was seven, so I've just been interested and committed to it since then.

Do you remember what those first moments in Hollywood were like for you? 

My first few months were extremely tough because I didn't really have things planned out in a way that someone should when they move across the country (laughs). I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street.

"I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street."

Last year, you were honored at ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood where you spoke on the power of representation. Growing up, what shows and stars did you turn to when you desired to feel seen?

The first person that popped in my head was Brandy because she was so big in music and with Moesha. Then there was the movie Cinderella that she did with Whitney Houston. I used to wear my hair in braids--Brandy was definitely a person I saw myself represented in in a big way. Then, I fell in love with Angela Bassett. Those were my biggest [influences] growing up--and Aaliyah, but that's just because I love Aaliyah (laughs).

Your latest movie, 'The Old Guard', deviates from the first two films that we’ve seen you in ('If Beale Street Could Talk' and 'Native Son'). In it, we see you grace the screen as Nile, a U.S. Marine who discovers she’s immortal. What drew you to this project?

The first thing that got me excited about it was the opportunity to work with [the film's director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. Then, once I got to read the script and the graphic novel, I was excited because it was an opportunity for me to do action, which is something I was always interested in. Gina was very committed to offering these real moments of genuine groundedness, and even though we're playing these characters with these really cool abilities, they're still very human and relatable, so it was exciting for me to take on both aspects of that: playing this very physical, kickass character but still being able to bring the vulnerability that people know me for.

What was your biggest takeaway from your time on set with Gina?

What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work. To see her being fully committed to that and come to the table knowing that that's what she wanted to do and that this was a gift that she had and being confident in that, that was definitely something that I appreciated about working with her. She didn't lose herself in the fact that she was on this big, action set.

"What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work."

KiKi Layne pictured with 'The Old Guard' director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-star Charlize Theron

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There are so many themes running through 'The Old Guard'. One that stands out to me, which actually pops up in the trailer but hits harder when watching the movie is, “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting.” What is one lesson that you personally hold close? 

What are we doing with the time that we've been given? You see these [characters] who have so much time, and even they're struggling with what they're supposed to be doing. What is it serving for them to still be here? Especially with all that's going on now, what are we doing with the time that we have? If you're alive in this time right now, what does that mean?

Where do you see yourself most in Nile, and in what areas did you have to stretch yourself the most to tap into her world?

Definitely the biggest stretch was the physicality (laughs). All the training. Hours and hours of training, that was very different for me. Something that I connected to her with was her faith. That was definitely something that I saw, and I knew exactly what that was and also her love of family.

How does faith show up for you in your career?

It's the root of it. It's the root of my life. I feel like faith is super important. It helps me to not put so much pressure on myself, to trust that if it's meant for me, then it's going to be mine and to believe that my name has already been written on certain opportunities. When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, "That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is."

"When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, 'That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is.'"

What does it mean to you to share your art in the midst of the ongoing fight against systems of oppression that deplete our community?

A big part of it is representation. If someone has only seen a Black person being portrayed in very limited ways, they're going to make assumptions based off of what has been fed to them through TV and film. That's why I'm super committed to pushing against what has been the norm of how we've been represented in film.

For more of KiKi, follow her on Instagram. Netflix's The Old Guard is now streaming.

Featured image by Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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