Based on the novel of the same name written by the inimitable James Baldwin, directed and adapted for film by Barry Jenkins and starring KiKi Layne (as Tish) and Stephan James (as Alphonso or “Fonny,” if you’re family), If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a young woman and her family/community working to free her innocent, wrongfully accused/incarcerated/convicted boyfriend/father of her unborn child.
I was trying to make this review shorter, but there’s no way. I’m usually at about 600 words and I will certainly be over 1400 by the end of this. It took Barry Jenkins 5 weeks to write this screen play. It took me nearly two weeks to perfect these 1400 or so words. …Talk about feeling like an amateur… (Just joking. I don’t compare myself to others. Ever. And Barry had Baldwin as his guide.)
There is plenty to like about If Beale Street Could Talk. Foremost, there is some outstanding acting going on here. Most notably from Brian Tyree Henry (whose doesn’t have a lot of lines; but man oh man, the ones he has are powerful and haunting. The development of the depth of his character takes literal moments and it is flipping brilliant!), and the underrated Colman Domingo. Regina King has won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe award for her role and is a favorite for the Oscar. Congratulations Regina!
Jenkins’ directing and the editing of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are outstanding! This movie has so much geographical movement that enriches the story with palpable energy. We’re on the street, in an apartment, back on the street, in another apartment, at a bar, in the visiting room at the jail, in a department store, oooh, look… we’re in Puerto Rico! We’re on a rooftop, in an alley, in a grocery store, yet another apartment, in a bathtub, etc.
This movement, in conjunction with Nicholas Britell’s score, makes If Beale Street Could Talk feel vibrant and alive and invites the audience into every scene, with every character, every step of the way.
If Beale Street Could Talk contains (nearly) two, (mostly) loving, (mostly) supportive black families (even though Alphonso’s mama is crazy and his sisters are being raised to be horrible people) full of strong Black women and a father in both homes as a norm. That was nice to see for a change of pace and I need more of it, please.
The film presents a potential “white savior” who fails! How often do you see that happen?!! But dude, you failed at the wrong-est of times! Fonny needed you, man! (I’m halfway joking about the white savior thing. On one hand, I’m sure anyone in Alfonso’s position couldn’t give a care about the ethnicity of whomever might have the ability to “save” them, but on the other, a story written by James Baldwin containing anything about a white savior would mean the world as we know it would make a little less sense.)
Cinematographer James Laxton makes certain that If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece to behold visually. The set design and wardrobe are thoughtful and beautiful. The setting and subject matter, each vacillating between romance/hope/love and fear/despair/helplessness, fit right into Jenkins’ stripped-bare, pensive style of directing exhibited in Moonlight (my review in the link. I must say, I watched Moonlight a couple of weeks ago and fell right back in love with it all over again). Laxton captures it all. What a dynamic pair they make.
If Beale Street Could Talk is only Jenkin’s second feature film and it is quite a daunting endeavor. I’m proud that he went for it, but along with the praise, I have a bit of criticism which it pains me to share, but share I must. Alright, alright, alright…there’s quite a lot of criticism.
Using the same musical director, cinematographer and editors on both films pretty much ensures the same “feel” and tone, which is probably what Barry (I call him Barry as though we’ve met. I’m sure he won’t mind, because I love him.) was going for and that is fine, but at times – specifically during the third act – I literally felt as though I was watching Moonlight with some changes in faces, circumstances, location, etc. Both films are unconventional love stories with vague endings. The pauses, the shots, the use of music, the colors, all felt so familiar but not always necessarily in the best way.
Tish provided quite a bit of narration in order to move this story along. My feeling is – there’s a point where a movie can have too much. When I’m watching a movie, I want to see the movie, not listen to it. Not even in Baldwin’s beautiful words. I know that no one wants to sit for a four hour, sad movie? Specifically, not I; but there was so much narration it causes me to question the “adaptability” of this book to film, or at the very least, whether this was the best way to execute the adaptation or the best of Baldwin’s book to adapt.
The subject matter is too vast and too dense. Baldwin was a deep and complicated person, thinker and writer, so I would imagine during an adaptation of even what seems like his simplest work, there is a lot of material to sift through with many, many layers to untangle. From one moment to the next, If Beale Street Could Talk confronts the audience with teen pregnancy, generational poverty, police harassment/corruption, unlawful imprisonment, sexual harassment, young love, family support, domestic violence, the frustration of the Black man in America, religion/faith, loyalty between friends, lovers and family, etc., etc., etc.
It was a lot. In fact, it was too much. Respect for the original work is important, but in movie-making (Not that I’ve ever made one, but I’ve watched enough of them to know the things that make one better than another), many, many times, adjustments and even sacrifices have to be made in the name of clarity and focus in succinct storytelling.
Barry, where was the resolution? I didn’t mind being left hanging when Moonlight ended. I thought it was perfect and beautiful for that film; but here, I would have appreciated the opportunity to at least see Alphonso free after all the agony we went through together. I don’t care how the book ended, satisfy the viewer – book; movie – there is a difference.
And lastly (Dang, that feels like a lot of criticism right there! Sorry Barry. I still love you though!), if there wasn’t going to be a resolution at the end, you know what would have been absolutely perfect!? This movie could have been tied into the modern day wrongful conviction exonerations and releases spirited by the Innocence Project, for whom 2018 was a record-setting year in exonerations. A couple of these innocents were locked up right around the same time as Fonny/Baldwin’s writing and are just now getting out. There could have been a few statistics on DNA exonerations of the wrongfully accused and how people of color, specifically Black men like Fonny, are disproportionately the victims of such injustice. Lastly, show some pictures of men who’ve gone through what Fonny went through in real life with their name and the number of years lost from their lives due to these injustices. When If Beale Street Could Talk was over this is all I could think about and I wanted it to happen desperately; but it didn’t. It could have been so perfect and so powerful. There would have been applause at the end. I know this to be true of my screening, at least, because I would have been the one leading it!
I know Barry, I know, you were probably thinking about this as a love story and I’m thinking of it as more of a cautionary tale – more like an anti-love story. There is nothing that says “love story” about your love spending his entire youth locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. There was love in the acts and sacrifices made on Fonny’s behalf. That’s where the love comes in. Just because they stayed together through their hardships does not make it a love story in my opinion. I know all “love stories” do not end in happily ever after, but this was just sad. Some sad, sour love.
Whatever way you look at it, love story aside, of all the “fiction” written herein, the incarceration piece is the most heart wrenching, as many people – mostly Black men – have lost their lives, livelihood, freedom and youth being arrested, tried and convicted for crimes they did not commit, and to not highlight that is a missed opportunity, in my humble-never made a movie in my life-opinion.
Alas… If Beale Street Could Talk earned 8.0 bloops out of 10 bloops. Although it’s not perfect, it is a solidly good movie with a lot going for it. A brilliant second effort by Jenkins and his crew. I just think it could have been better had the subject matter been more finely tuned. The hope and despair were palpable and wonderfully executed and if it gets people who would not otherwise have to explore and/or read Baldwin’s works, kudos! I’m excitedly anticipating seeing what Mr. Jenkins will do with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and anything else he wants to take on.
Thank you for reading. You can scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page, hit the “follow” button and enter your email address to subscribe to bloopbymimi, and never miss a review; or you can follow me on twitter (which I must get more savvy with and active on!) @bloopbymimi1
1 = worst ever, avoid at all cost
2 = very bad, forget about it!
3 = poor movie, not recommended
4 = not good, even for free – NO!
5 = so-so, worth it if you don’t have to pay
6 = not bad, could have been better
7 = good movie, worth seeing
8 = great movie, don’t miss it!
9 = excellent movie, a must see!
10 = a masterpiece, go see it now!
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