If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Cast: Stephan James, Kiki Layne, Regina King, and Brian Tyree Henry
Director: Barry Jenkins
Synopsis: Former Best Picture winning director Barry Jenkins’ newest film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, which follows 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) as she and her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) deal with an unplanned pregnancy. This situation is made more complicated by the fact that Fonny was falsely accused of rape and is being indefinitely held in prison awaiting trial. Tish must prepare to become a mother and work with her family to prove Fonny innocent.
I begin this with a personal note of bias, as this film was my most anticipated of 2018. James Baldwin is my favorite author, Barry Jenkins is one of my favorite filmmakers, and If Beale Street Could Talk is a story that had a profound impact on me. As such, it is possible that I am both too harsh and too uncritical of certain aspects of this film.
When she finds out she is pregnant, Tish Rivers’ quest to free her boyfriend from prison becomes even more fraught. The state is trying to bury Fonny’s case and send him away forever for a crime he did not commit. Racial discrimination seeps through all aspects of Tish’s life and Fonny’s as they try to live in the Bronx of the 1970s. Tish is helped by her mother (Regina King), father (Brian Tyree Henry), sister, and Fonny’s father.
This film was a work of art, from the beautiful soundtrack to the fantastic set design. Jenkins worked again with cinematographer James Laxton, who is quickly establishing himself as a master of the camera, especially when collaborating with Jenkins. The absolute art that is each scene of this film in the visual sense is reason enough to see If Beale Street Could Talk. This is perhaps most evident in the flashback scenes, which not only look gorgeous but truly encapsulate Baldwin’s sense of radical hope and love in spite of difficult circumstance and the odds being stacked against black people in America.
The performances from the main cast were all stellar, but Regina King truly stood out. She provided depth beyond simply being Tish’s mother. She inspired both humor and heartbreak, balancing the line between drama and emotion. Diego Luna, although hardly in the film, was a needed bit of light and levity. Unfortunately, the casting of Dave Franco and Finn Wittrock were missteps and at times felt unnatural in their respective roles.
At the length of 2 hours, this film is long. Considering the original novel was 197 pages, there were pacing issues that brought down the otherwise outstanding film. This was a problem that originated in Jenkins’s script, and was then left unfixed by the editor. Several scenes go on too long, and there are large sections of the story which were not in the novel. However, the pacing issues only became noticeable after the first hour, and do not massively detract from the overall well-executed story, especially for those who have not read the novel. While all other aspects of the filmmaking production elevate the movie, the pacing problems, prevent it from being truly and completely masterful.
Despite some room for improvement, If Beale Street Could Talk is emotional, poignant, and a unique cinematic experience. It’s worth seeing if you have the chance.