“If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) is the newest film by Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of “Moonlight” (2016) and the movie is an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel by the same name, which follows the trials and triumphs of a young black couple in New York. It is a slice-of-life story that shows the repercussions of institutionalized injustice and the love between people trying to overcome it. Although it is incredibly moving at certain moments, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an ultimately disappointing film that is so sappy it ends up muddling its own message.
The film is a love letter to love. Beale Street is a literal place in Memphis, Tennessee, and also a reference to a blues song. A quote from Baldwin’s novel appears at the beginning of the film: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” Here, Beale Street is all of New York, from Harlem to Greenwich Village (before it was a gentrified hipster mecca). Within and throughout the city, the film revolves around the love story between young Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James). New York is so picturesque it seems built for the characters, framing their walks together in glowing sunlight, vibrant colors and lush park trees. But, New York is not as kind as it looks. Fonny is framed by a slimy cop for rape and sent to prison right as Tish, inconveniently, realizes she is pregnant. As a story of African-American life and struggle in 1970s New York, the film stays true to the beauty of the original novel, but not the grit, and certainly not the plot points.
Even those who have not read Baldwin’s original novel can probably envision how many of the scenes would be better on paper than on screen. The story’s dialogue is so powerful that it is easily over-delivered, but sometimes it is just plain cheesy. The love scenes are helped by Tish’s narration that adds a noted tenderness and softness, and one wonders, too, if she is supposed to be the personified voice of Beale Street. Whenever Tish narrates, everything seems slightly slowed down, the colors deepen and the camera moves closer on their faces as they gaze at each other. Such moments are beautiful, but come too often, and thus quickly lose their original effect and turn a little sickly sweet. When something not terribly tragic or infuriating happens, Tish and Fonny are declaring their love for each other bathed in sunlight. It’s all a little too much. In an article in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix goes even further. She outlines some significant and troubling disparities between the movie and the novel, arguing that Jenkins’ film has “shave[d] away the spikes of the original text.”
The film is weakest when it strays from the meat of its setting — Tish and Fonny in New York, post-honeymoon phase, leaning on their families and each other to get them through the pregnancy and conviction. Many of the pre-conviction love scenes are lackluster (particularly the ones in the bedroom). Later in the movie Tish’s mother, a steely Regina King, decides to track down Fonny’s accuser in her home in Puerto Rico. This pursuit leads to an uncomfortable confrontation in which Tish’s mother assures the woman that she believes her assault happened, but that she could not possibly have seen Fonny that night. We know Fonny has an alibi and that the cop holds a grudge towards him based on the realities of racism in the criminal justice system throughout the story, but this isn’t the case with this woman. The whole scene comes off as frustrating instead of sympathetic.
That being said, “Beale Street” is not without its winning qualities. The visuals are gorgeous, particularly thanks to Jenkins’ use of color, and there are a couple of moments in or surrounding the cell that ring poignant and true. The acting is exceptional all-around, and the Academy’s nod to Layne is a welcome recognition given the #OscarsSoWhite debacle of the last couple of years. Baldwin’s original novel was and is a powerful, revolutionary tale of loving while black, and it deserves to be told. As Dagmawi Woubshet of The Atlantic writes, Jenkins has “introduced viewers to a Baldwin work that sits outside the parameters of the civil-rights era … as well as a vision of black desire that audiences rarely glimpse in movie theaters.” It is an unfortunately unique setup for a movie, which is why it is admirable that Jenkins exposed his (mainstream) audience to it with obvious care.
It is only a shame that the complexity of this tender narrative was reduced to a pedestrian love story, and that the intensity of Baldwin’s original was often lost (particularly in the ending). Ultimately, the film comes off as too sweet for its own good.