If Beale Street Could Talk (KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King) – From the director of Academy Award winning Best Picture La La Land, WHOOPS, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk lingers. Stylistically, this appears to be writer/director Barry Jenkins intent. Telling the story of the love affair between two young African Americans, Beale Street depicts what Jenkins calls “black love” and the possibility that it can be snatched away in a heartbeat. Why? It’s a cultural and sociological truth that the criminal justice system in America is often biased against African Americans.
Jenkins drops us into a New York neighborhood where Tish (KiKi Layne in her first film) and Fonny (Stephan James) are getting engaged. They are in that stage of love where they are just gaga for each other. While they have known each other since they were toddlers, they only recently realized that they aren’t kids anymore and that their attraction is no longer platonic.
From their first sexual encounter through the rental of their first apartment, the relationship is deep, abiding and innocent. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, we find out that Fonny is in prison awaiting his trial for rape. And in the first visit to prison that we see, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant. It is at this point that Jenkins, a master story-telling, slows the pace down … almost agonizingly … and lets us delve deeply into the characters. As the audience, we know that Fonny cannot be guilty. He is both too good – almost angelic – and too committed to Tish. Yet here he is in jail for a crime he could not have committed.
In addition to the couple, we meet both of their families. Her parents, played by Golden Globe nominee Regina King (Marcee from Jerry McGuire) and Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy in Selma), are supportive. His father, played by Michael Beach (who played Deval Patrick in Patriots Day), welcomes the news. But his mother, played perfectly bitchy by Aunjanue Ellis (Miranda from Quantico), never liked Tish and curses the new baby in a scene that feels both uncomfortable and sickening.
The rest of the film is a long day’s journey into plight. Tish has to endure a tough pregnancy with the help of her mother, who goes to Puerto Rico to convince the woman who accused Fonny of rape to recant. Fonny puts on good face as he rots in jail as his trial is postponed yet wants to put on a brave front for Tish. The two dads turn to crime to get enough money to pay for the defense.
While the story has deep social relevance, at its heart it is an enduring love story. This is where the film works. It is wonderfully photographed with dark tones. Its soundtrack is surprising, haunting, and full of atonal bass. And the ensemble acting is superb. If only Jenkins had allowed the music, photography and acting to carry the story.
Where it doesn’t work is in the pacing. Jenkins seems so intent on advancing his movie-making technique (as evident in Moonlight) that he seems lost in stylistics. The lingering camera shots, designed to make us look deep into the faces of the characters, diminishes his own script, which is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel by the same name. The film is just slow, almost ponderous.
An Oscar nomination or two is inevitable. But this film is not a breakthrough like Moonlight even if the story is more complex and the budget much larger. It is not as good as Fences, the film it most resembles as an adaptation of renowned black artists’ work. But it is worth seeing on a day when you are wide awake and with a caffeinated beverage at your side.