****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A Beautiful mess of a movie that is gorgeous to look at but story wise is derivative and dull, making it difficult to sit through.
If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is an adaptation of the James Baldwin story of the same name that follows the travails of two African-Americans, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the perils of young love in a racist New York City of the 1970’s. The film stars Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephon James as Fonny with supporting turns from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry .
If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkin’s much anticipated follow up to his 2016 Best Picture winning Moonlight, is another in a long line of disappointments on the very bumpy ride of cinema in 2018.
Based on the James Baldwin story of the same name (which I have not read), If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful mess of a movie. It is at once visually stunning yet also narratively pedestrian and culturally juvenile.
Let’s start with the good news. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers an impeccably lush and cinematically vibrant aesthetic to the film. Laxton’s camera engages in an exquisite dance with his subjects while painting the world of the film with a delicate and ethereal palate that is not only gorgeous to behold but narratively profound. Laxton’s work on Moonlight was equally sublime and dramatically insightful, and with If Beale Street Could Talk, Laxton has shown himself to be not only a master craftsman but a powerful artist.
Sadly, Barry Jenkins script never lives up to Laxton’s stirring cinematography. Jenkins inability to write efficient and effective dialogue and build a coherent and compelling narrative make If Beale Street Could Talk a frustratingly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying film to watch.
When Jenkins (and Laxton) flashes back and focuses on the blossoming first love of Tish and Fonny, the film crackles with life. The chemistry between actors Kiki Layne (Tish) and Stephon James (Fonny) in these flashback scenes is palpable, and Laxton superbly bathes them in gorgeous light, shadow and color as he lets the viewer see the characters as they see each other, through the prism of unabashed love.
It is when the film shifts to the present moment and its drama of “legal peril”, which is decidedly stale and stultifying with cringe worthy dialogue to match, when the wheels come of the cinematic wagon. An example of which is that there is a scene between Tish and Fonny’s families that is so poorly written, poorly directed and poorly acted that it was like watching kids put on a play…a very bad play…in their basement.
The “legal peril” storyline is so trite, hackneyed and derivative it seems like it was lifted from an episode of Law and Order or some equally awful television show. Anytime the focus of the film shifts to the legal story and its adjacent narratives, it serves as little more than an irritating distraction.
The film is equally abysmal when it tries to convey a political or socially conscious message. When Jenkins tries to use the movie as a statement on race in America, it reveals itself to be, at best, painfully adolescent in its cosmology.
Ironically, in its social themes, If Beale Street Could Talk is as much an unnuanced distorted Black view of America as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is a unnuanced distorted view of America through the White perspective. Both film’s are little more than wish fulfillment and fantasies driven by archetypes deeply embedded in the American psyche. In the case of Dirty Harry, it is the archetypal Righteous Gun Slinging Vigilante, who is part of the system but operates outside of it to protect Whites from those lawless “others”, most notably Blacks (think of the “you feel lucky” scene, where Dirty Harry points his .44 Magnum in the face of a “Black criminal”).
In If Beale Street Could Talk, the thematic archetype is one of the Righteous Victim (think of Fonny as the young Black criminal with Dirty Harry’s .44 in his face), who is oppressed by the system and must operate outside of it in order to survive it. In this way, If Beale Street Could Talk is social justice/victimhood porn and propaganda, which on its surface claims to be about speaking the truth of the Black perspective in America, but in reality is about reinforcing and strengthening the victim archetype and narrative.
What is striking to me about this aspect of the film, is that it also reinforces the racist tropes that fueled the Dirty Harry era to begin with and which eventually led to Clinton’s infamous crime bill in the 90’s which further criminalized Black men. For instance, the lead character Fonny which, along with Tish, is whom the viewer is supposed to identify with, and yet when we first learn about Fonny, he commits a crime, theft. Fonny’s lawlessness is not even given a second thought, but in the narrative structure of the film it subconsciously undermines the audiences connection to him to a devastating degree. This is not some personal revelation from me, this is just Cinema 101: Basic Storytelling and Character Development.
The same is true of the other Black men in the movie, all of whom are equally lawless and all of whom commit crimes. Fonny’s father steals from the docks, and his pseudo father in law not only steals but beats the hell out of his wife…and yet these men are supposed to represent “regular Black men”.
Add to that Fonny’s friend Daniel who is fresh out of prison, and just like Fonny claims he is entirely innocent of the charges against him. Apparently Fonny and Daniel are the two guys who really didn’t do it…even though we’ve already seen Fonny commit a crime and Daniel’s sketchy reputation precedes him.
While all of the Black men in the film are criminals, none of them take responsibility for their criminality. The crimes they commit are all the fault of the system that is screwing them, thus demeaning these men even further as they are deprived of any and all agency. This is the Victim archetype in full bloom, where no matter what the character does it is never their fault. This is an extremely unsatisfying quality in a cinematic Hero, as it simply castrates the Hero and asks the audience to pity them rather than relate or project on to them. It also does not allow for any catharsis on the part of the character, and that in turn doesn’t allow for any catharsis on the part of the viewer, which results in a psychologically frustrating movie-going experience.
Consider other Hero stories where the Hero is brought down by a corrupt system…movies like Braveheart, where William Wallace ultimately loses, but he goes down swinging, screaming “Freedom” at the top of his lungs as he is torn to shreds. Or think of a parallel for the Fonny character to maybe the best known Hero story of them all…Jesus Christ. Jesus is persecuted, just like Fonny, but the key to the Jesus story is that he has agency and chooses to be crucified….thus becoming Christ. Jesus is the empowered form of the Victim archetype…which is the martyr, who is victim by choice. The choice here is the important thing as it means the Hero may suffer a terrible defeat but he still maintains his agency. In contrast, the perpetually disempowered Fonny is just laundry being tossed and turned in a washing machine, who never chooses but always loses.
In terms of the criminality of the characters in the film, there are other contrasting examples, think of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The mobsters in those movies do awful things to people and yet audiences relate to them and embrace them as “Heroes” of the story, why is that? The reason for that is because those characters, from Michael Corleone to Henry Hill, embrace their criminality. They maintain their agency and don’t claim to be victims of the system, instead they are gaming the system.
These details in the DNA of If Beale Street Could Talk may seem minute to the less sophisticated viewer, but it is these specific elements that can make or break a film and its narrative in the unconscious of the audience. In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, these subtle archetypal issues deter viewers from fully accepting and embracing the characters, story and film.
It isn’t just the Black men who fair poorly in If Beale Street Could Talk, as White men are portrayed as truly devils in this movie. White men are sexual predators (again, the inverse of the Dirty Harry movie where Black men are predators) and are inherently evil, from a lecherous perfume shopper to a cop who is so consumed with racial hatred he comes across as more than a little insane. For the White characters in this movie, just like Black characters in Dirty Harry, they are entirely devoid of nuance and are absurd caricatures. Even White characters we never see are predators, as there is one who impregnates a poor Latina women and then leaves her with nothing, and then maybe even returns to rape her.
It is for these reasons that If Beale Street Could Talk is just as insidious and insipid as the blatantly racist Dirty Harry movies.
As for the acting, Stephon James and Kiki Layne are glorious in their falling in love sequences. Laxton’s camera holds on their loving gazes for extended periods and their love for one another is tangible in these shots. But when they are asked to do more than just look longingly and lovingly at one another, the two stars lose much of their power.
James is a charismatic screen presence, but he seems rather limited when it comes to the more static shots. James is unable to compress his magnetism and dynamism when he is contained in such a confining space and he loses his power because of it.
Kiki Layne is quite engaging during the dreamy love sequences as well, but she too falls well short when things get much more complicated. Layne’s strong suit is her ability to seem to be overcome by her wonder for the world, but when the world stops being wondrous, she stops being interesting and starts being wooden.
Regina King does solid work as Tish’s mom, but she is hamstrung by being stuck in the intolerably mundane legal drama portion of the story, and while she is a compelling actress, none of her scenes are particularly noteworthy.
If Beale Street Could Talk, which may be the second most mis-leading title in the history of cinema right behind The Never Ending Story because Beale Street is never seen in the movie and all the action takes place in New York (I am kidding, the title is explained in the opening, but still…I found it funny), is another in a long line of films that underwhelmed in 2018. Barry Jenkins (and his cinematographer James Laxton) has a distinct and luscious visual flair to his work, but his storytelling and character development need serious work. Therefore I can only recommend this film to the most committed of cinephiles who would want to see the cinematography on the big screen. For everyone else, there is no reason to see this in the theatre, but if you stumble upon it on cable one night or on Netflix, feel free to check it out if you like, and tell me if I am wrong or not.
In conclusion, if Beale Street could talk, I’d tell it to shut up because while it talks a lot and does so in a beautifully melodious and mellifluous visual voice, it actually doesn’t say a whole hell of a lot, and what little it does have to say is so vapid and vacuous that it has no value whatsoever.