If Beale Street Could Talk is an opportunity missed by writer/director Barry Jenkins, whose main agenda seems to be to stamp the film with his directorial mark. He might have been better served directing more energy towards creating characters of some complexity and fleshing out the narrative.
Coming off the back of an Oscar for Best Picture for Moonlight (2016), writer/director Barry Jenkins had everything going for him with If Beale Street Could Talk – critical acclaim, a source text from James Baldwin, one of America’s most celebrated black novelists, a top cast and crew. Yet, he has disappointed, hijacking the film through directorial self-indulgence. Falling short in fundamentals like narrative and characterisation, which needed more work, he has channelled his creative energy into imposing his stylistic mark.
An irritating instance of this is the jazz soundtrack that runs virtually throughout, often making the dialogue hard to hear. It’s a heavy-handed application of a cultural signifier that might assist in creating a mood, but is distracting for the viewer. And surely, black folk = jazz is a cultural equation that buys into stereotype.
The film is set in NYC of the early 70s. Apart from era-specific fashion like afros and paisley, and the odd song of the time, not a lot of effort has been put into recreating the era. Even in the dialogue, there’s not much 70s lingo.
Early on, there’s an eloquent quote from Baldwin explaining that Beale Street is actually in New Orleans, but could be any black-inhabited street in America; for black Americans, racism and inequity are ubiquitous.
You might expect, then, a fiery exposé of the social milieu of the era and its effect on both blacks and whites, with perhaps an implicit suggestion that things haven’t progressed all that far since the 70s. What we get is half-arsed, and lacking in detail and subtlety. Recent films like BlackKklansman and Detroit cover this territory far more powerfully.
Part of the problem is that Jenkins’ agenda seems to be split three ways. Beale Street is part social commentary, part romance, and part vehicle for directorial tonal expression and lyricism. The parts dilute the whole.
The narrative is pretty threadbare. Basically, it’s the story of two young black lovers, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), torn asunder when the latter is wrongly convicted of rape and jailed after being set up by a vindictive white cop (so repugnantly hateful, racist and evil that he tips over into caricature). We learn via flashback that Tish is pregnant. When the child is born and efforts to clear Fonny fail, their anguish escalates. Unfortunately, with their contact restricted to prison visits, the dramatic possibilities of their interactions are limited.
As tragic as their situation is, it’s hard to care much about Tish and Fonny, because in Jenkins’ hands they are such drippy characters. They spend most of their time mooning doe-eyed at each other in flashbacks.
We are taken to the first time they make love – preceded, of course, with lingering, gravely lovelorn gazing into each other’s adoring eyes. You pray for a fade-out, but no. Jenkins is obviously getting off on his lyricism. There’s no stopping this poet of lurve until he – and the oh-so-tender lovers – are through. That takes a tediously long time (with nary a grunt or moan passing between them – these guys are too tantric for that sort of animal crudity). The camerawork is superb, but that’s little compensation.
There’s another flashback to the night of their child’s conception. Naturally, it’s the most tender and loving of couplings, culminating in simultaneous (noiseless) orgasms. I mean, really.
The most memorable scene of the film takes place in Tish’s parents’ living room, when she nervously breaks the news to her father that she is pregnant. Dad responds like the great guy he is (there are no grey areas to any of the characters), and invites the future in-laws over to celebrate.
Fonny’s mother is a snob and fundamentalist Christian who reacts to Tish’s news with self-righteous moral outrage (she’s another character over-written to the point of caricature). Her rant is stopped short by her husband, who unleashes a monstrous backhander to the face that knocks her across the room. It’s shocking, but not to the characters, who react as if the poor woman has just sustained a sporting injury – no big deal, these things happen.
As the women tend to her, the two fathers trot off to the pub for some consoling beers. The assault has done nothing to curb her tongue, which prompts Tish to call her “a shrivelled up yellow cunt”. Apart from this foul eruption being completely out of character for Tish, it’s a cheap bit of writing, reflective of the best-insult-wins mentality of social media. Raise the bar, Barry.
I could go on, but that’ll do. Suffice to say in summary, I think Beale Street is limp. It left me cold. The majority of the critical population are spouting off superlatives. Whatever. See it and make up your own mind, but if you come away wondering what all the fuss is about, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Movie Website: http://www.bealestreet.movie/
If Beale Street Could Talk features: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins (based on the book by James Baldwin)
Runtime: 119 min
Australian release date: If Beale Street Could Talk in Australian cinemas from Thurs 14 Feb, 2019
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