Filmmaker Barry Jenkins received both critical acclaim and numerous awards including Best Picture at the Academy Awards for his 2016 film “Moonlight," an intimate and poetic exploration of one man’s alienation and struggle in a society he feels drowned in. Jenkins’ next film follows a completely different style, yet a similar theme. Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has its heart in the right place the entire time, overall achieving what it sets out to do, yet struggles to execute its mission to its best ability.
Set in Harlem during the 1970s, young black couple Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso/Fonny (Stephen James) struggle to deal with the various instances of interfering with their love. Fonny is in prison due to being wrongfully accused of raping a woman, causing Tish to go about with her daily life and Fonny feeling trapped in his cell, both without each other's emotional support. The driving force still connecting the couple is their unborn baby that Tish carries. In addition to their separation, the couple deals with the daily struggle of racism that plagued the 1970s — a time in which the civil rights movement was still fresh and racial justice was challenging to achieve.
Jenkins' main goal as a storyteller is to stay true to Baldwin’s words and focus on the love story he crafted. While at times the couple feels too perfect and a little too in love, they have a deeply pure connection for each other that most couples can only dream of having. The on-screen chemistry between Tish and Fonny simply isn’t there compared to other romantic films that follow a couple plagued with chaos.
Perhaps this is due to Jenkins forcing their love on us, painting too pretty of a picture and excluding the necessary drama to hold them together. While “Beale Street” deals with a heavy subject matter, the drama and emotion is lacking. The film is too quiet and pretty, with only two scenes truly grabbing you and giving you something to feel.
What makes “If Beale Street Could Talk” work is how it is made. Barry Jenkins, being the visual artist he is as a filmmaker, crafts a truly gorgeous vision of Harlem in the 1970s and puts together a stunning film that will captivate the audience throughout. The cinematography captures the characters beautifully by expressing their emotions with detail and precision.
The score generates a simultaneously haunting and charming mood to the film. Jenkins uses close-up shots to allow his audience to truly study his characters which helps us to become more invested in their journey from start to finish.
The performances in this film are all stellar, each actor giving it their absolute best to portray people and not just fictional characters. Regina King is particularly memorable as Tish’s mother, whose motherly love and care for her daughter and her happiness drives her character into an emotional roller coaster.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a strong film that generates emotional appeal, yet doesn’t fully embrace its dramatic potential. This film won’t move you or make you cry, but it will give you an appreciation for Barry Jenkins’ directorial vision and for the struggle of a couple who truly love each other. Tish and Fonny both go through gut-wrenching emotional stress that needed to be explored and expressed in a more intense and kinetic fashion instead of the calm, peaceful nature of the film, but from start to finish you’ll recognize you’re watching an emotional film from the eye of a master filmmaker.