The fact that someone could struggle writing about something with James Baldwin attached to it is not a surprise. He’s an icon and any attempt to bring his words to screen will be met with a ton of anticipation. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ follow up to his Oscar winning triumph Moonlight, is a sumptuous movie that I felt kept me at a distance.
Our story is told by Tish (a marvelous Kiki Layne) who is the fiance of Fonny (Stephan James) with whom she is expecting a child. The two have been in love for a while and making plans for a life together, but that love has been tested in a strong way. Fonny has been accused of rape and is languishing in prison, and Tish and her mother (Regina King) rush to try and prove his innocence. Unfortunately for all involved, the structural challenges they have to face make this an incredibly tough battle.
Honestly, this movie reminded me so much of 12 Years a Slave in that the themes and renderings of specific places/points of Black history far exceed anything the actual narrative is attempting to get across. If Beale Street Could Talk, at many moments, works as a kind of exhumation of the Black experience: the joys, the heartaches, the racism. It’s in those indelible moments that the story affects you as a viewer and opens your eyes to a new way of seeing. The craft of this movie is what the chef’s kiss meme was made for. The cinematography, costume design, and production design create a visual landscape that’s incredibly rich. Jenkins and company understand that Black skin looks good in and on every color and finds a way to incorporate a visual palette that adds emotion. And the score fills in what the visuals don’t, romancing the audience with music.
However, unlike McQueen’s film, Barry Jenkins has to suffer the weight of James Baldwin’s words. His adaptation here uses a combination of voice over, still images, and narrative to convey all of the things that Baldwin wanted to convey. The problem here is that you feel like Barry couldn’t truly escape or adapt the movie. Every time he wants to zig, the ghost of Baldwin coaxed him to zag. Bryan Tyree Henry’s monologue about life in prison is a showstopper, a wonderful piece of writing that illuminates how awful prison can be. But it does stop the show and the movie. If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie of moments, beautiful, emotional moments, but it did not cohere into a 100% realized film for me.
This is perhaps because [SPOILER ALERT] of the narrative outline which hinges on a woman, who has been so traumatized from being raped that she ultimately can’t testify. [END SPOILER ALERT] Regina King acts the desperation of her daughter beautifully in the conversation she has with her but it almost would have been better to not include her at all as the scene leaves a sour taste in your mouth I don’t think they intended. If Beale Street Could Talk is still worth your time, but I truly wished I’d connected with it more.