REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

In moonlight, black boys look blue… but on Beale Street it would seem they can talk.

As the birth of their first child verges closer to reality, young sweethearts, Tish and Fonny, face their greatest challenge after Fonny is wrongly accused and charged for a heinous crime, leaving Tish to struggle alone.

Coming off his tremendous Academy Award winning, critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama, Moonlight, lauded filmmaker, Barry Jenkins, has returned to his routes in the romance genre (after his debut, Medicine for Melancholy) to deliver the visually poetic, If Beale Street Could Talk. Possibly one of the recent calendar year’s most overlooked films, If Beale Street Could Talk very much verges on greatness, if not falling short in few cases, but still appearing inflicted with a clear case of “modern classic”.

Sadly residing in the shadow of Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk could almost be described as Moonlight‘s cute younger sisters who wears glasses. So strangely overlooked but so brilliantly close to par with Moonlight, Jenkins’ newest effort combined fairytale romance with a threatening darker edge. Stumbling on for a bit too long with on-the-nose observations of its themes, If Beale Street Could Talk was not exactly genius but definitely had a lot to offer and was in no position to be, quite frankly, so unacknowledged in awards season.

(Tatum Mangus/ Annapurna Pictures, 2019)

Dancing to a score so heavenly and equally dramatic with cinematography that could have easily been the vision of angel from heaven, the ultimate feeling and sense of passion Jenkins employed in If Beale Street Could Talk really made for a spell-bounding experience. Although I wouldn’t jump so far to call Moonlight a romance film, and more a boy’s approach to his ambiguous passion, If Beale Street Could Talk almost completes Jenkins’ trilogy of, more-or-less, American ghetto love letters. Whilst both visually and verbally demanding a cursive-like stance on the words of cinema, Jenkins’ Beale Street reflected the stylings of poem, more than a straight narrative. If Beale Street Could Talk played like Shakespeare or a song – unpredictable if not read right, but gracefully foreseeable if the one watching is in-touch with the language of cinema.

What did not work though with Beale Street‘s careful and transfixing nature was the elements of the film that were too on-the-nose to take figuratively like the rest of the film. This may just be a nitpick but for moments the movie would cut away to real life black and white photos of African American repression that, in a similar way to BlacKkKlansman, kind of stole way the ultimate immersion of the film. Personally, I prefer it when a film leans away from real life footage or imagery since anything from reality really tears away the magic built up so carefully by a filmmaker. The black and white imagery utilised in Beale Street just refused any personal assessment of the themes, giving a rather straight forward visualisation of them that did not flow well with the rest of the poetic heavy film. However, the biggest travesty that ensured Beale Street be slightly lesser quality to Moonlight was the heavy narration.

Now, I do not mind narration in a film – sometimes its quite shocking or soothing or, just plain and simple, suits the occasion, but for a film so visual, relying heavily on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story, the narration in Beale Street just felt so ham-fisted. It did not work in the context of the story, neither in relation to why it was necessary to translate the film’s thematic messages – the narration was just there and it didn’t work. Possibly the most grinding element of the film that did not entirely ruin it, If Beale Street Could Talk would have flowed a whole lot better if it were not for the, well, little unnecessities Jenkins decided to include.

And usually I would not be so hard on a film for the narration or the inclusion of real life photography, but for a film as good as If Beale Street Could Talk it was truly difficult to grasp why Jenkins decided to keep around certain elements. Beale Street worked best, not just through its visuals and music like I already noted, but especially its performances – Stephan James and KiKi Layne especially shun in this film. I would also give a large amount of respect to Brian Tyree Henry who carried arguably the film’s most horrifying and shocking sequence, jumping between happiness and fear in the space of seconds onscreen. Regina King, also, was obviously remarkable in this film and matched up to the genius of Mahershala Ali, who equally hit new heights with his role in Moonlight. There were though a few casting choices that I was not entirely sure of… Characters portrayed by Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal and Ed Skrien would just appear out of the blue for small scenes here and there as ultimately their recognisable faces just did not jell well with the pivotal characters they played. It got to the point Franco’s appearance felt like a stretched out cameo that didn’t belong in the movie, as did most of the others who all felt kind of ‘alien’ to the overall story.

It’s obvious also that Barry Jenkins has a large grounding in theatre as much of Beale Street did in fact feel like a theatre play, particularly through dialogue scenes. The theatre aesthetic to the writing and acting did elevate the material to feeling more artistic and broad in expression, but some moments did feel a little cheesy – but the cute kind of cheesy. If Beale Street could in fact talk, I guess it would be like a theatre play.

At the end of the day though, Barry Jenkins’ foray into the corrupt legal systems of America and ongoing prejudice against African Americans really worked its magic within the confines of an epic romance. Reminding audiences of the power of love and its ability to blossom in a room shrouded by the darkest of shadows, Beale Street not only ‘talked’, but preached a powerful message on trust and triumph. There were lines of dialogue spoken for which I will never forget and shots of beauty to which I could never unsee, but all in all, how could I not love a film that left such an impact. If Beale Street Could Talk may not be at the level of Moonlight, but give it a few years to marinate and it will be glowing blue, too, in the moonlight.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a bloody… CRUSADE!!


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