If Beale Street Could Talk
Today I’m gonna be talking about the 2018 romantic drama film: If Beale Street Could Talk. It stars Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Paris and was directed by Barry Jenkins. If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name and tells the story of a young African American couple living in 1970s Harlem.
Tish, played by Kiki Layne, and Fonny, played by Stephan James, have been lifelong friends, but recently became romantically involved and got engaged. Shortly after that, Fonny is accused of a violent crime and is arrested, while Tish concurrently realizes that she’s pregnant. So, she and her family set out to try and prove Fonny’s innocence in order to get him released from jail. So, I can’t say I’m surprised by this movie. If you saw the teaser for this film, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. The first time I saw that teaser trailer in the theater, I could already tell this wasn’t gonna be a movie for me.
I could also tell right away that it was gonna be nominated for something at the Oscar’s, so I was gonna end up seeing it regardless of my interest (or, perhaps more precisely, lack thereof). But, at least I was mentally prepared to go into this viewing thanks to the appropriate trailer and I honestly think that resulted in a better-than-expected viewing experience for me. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that has an important message and even a decent story, but portrays it in an incredibly dull way. To be fair, this film started off a lot better than I anticipated. Aside from the unexpected (and pretty preachy) voice-over narration, complete with a freeze-frame and black and white photo montage, I actually found the character introductions to be fairly compelling.
The basic story was simple enough, so the film really boiled down to these characters. The filmmakers needed to make us care about them for any of this to work and I’m not sure how successful that was. The story is presented nonlinearly with crosscut time periods showing the events leading up to Fonny’s arrest and events post-arrest.
I thought that the crosscutting worked at first, but it wasn’t long before the timeline started to get fuzzy and the passage of time became difficult to follow. I’m sure one could argue that was an intentional thing designed to mimic how our memories function during times of stress, but it just didn’t work for me. As I already mentioned, I thought things started off strong. The introduction of the main supporting characters was an additional boost because, despite their small roles, they were very effective at contributing to the overall story.
Tish’s parents and sister felt like a realistic and cohesive family unit and their scenes were actually very grounded. Unfortunately, that grounded feel was lost during the dual-family announcement moment and this was also where I thought the film began to slip up. The interactions between the two families were interesting enough, but the movie very suddenly took on an almost parody-level of melodrama at that point. When you combine the soap opera antics with some unnatural and stilted dialogue, especially from Tish, it just results in a strange tone. Despite being based on a book, this movie feels like it was straight from a play instead.
The overly dramatic sequence I just mentioned feels right in line with that, as do the numerous sit-and-talk scenes sprinkled throughout the film. Luckily, there’s one major thing that separates this movie from other play-like movies: movement. Right from the opening overhead shot of Tish and Fonny walking in step with one another, I was struck by the camera movement employed in this film. Very few scenes are entirely still. Even those smaller, intimate sit-and-talk scenes almost always had some shifting or slow pans during the conversation.
The discussion between Fonny and Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, as they talk about Daniel’s experiences in prison is a perfect example of this. A quiet dialogue-heavy scene involving two seated people, yet the camera constantly moves; slowly panning from Fonny to Daniel and back again. Having a moving camera really helps keep the shots engaging and active, even when there’s no action on the screen. As I said, this movie did not hold any surprises for me.
I knew it was gonna be superb on a technical level, but I also knew it wasn’t gonna be able to maintain my interest for its entire runtime. It had its moments: the early dating scenes between Tish and Fonny, the interactions with Fonny’s lawyer, the fridge-moving scene with Levy. But, on the whole, this was a dull film with only a moderately strong romantic core. Okay, on to the pros and cons. My only real pro and the major stand-out aspect of this movie for me was the camera movement. The cinematography as a whole was pretty great – the shot composition and framing, just the general look of the film – but it was that camera movement that really stood out for me.
It transforms an otherwise slow and kinda flat story into something more dynamic – allowing us to view things more actively than we’d be able to with a static camera. This is very helpful cause this is definitely a slow movie. As far as cons go, there were a number of things that I felt didn’t really work… the first being the nonlinear structure. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when films tell their stories in unique ways and sometimes jumping back and forth between time periods is the perfect way to do that.
This particular story does lend itself to that style up to a point, but it loses its clarity and focuses on it. I think the beginning of the film handles it well, but after setting up the situation and explaining the key elements of the backstory, it sorta meanders through moments in Tish and Fonny’s past without providing any true sense of the passage of time. My second con is sorta a two-parter, dealing with the script. I found a lot of the dialogue, especially from Tish, to just feel very unnatural. You know, a lot of her interactions with Fonny and especially with Fonny’s family were clearly from the novel.
Her cadence and the way she formed sentences was more how somebody would write, rather than how they’d actually speak. Now that’s not to say all of the dialogue had that issue. Tish’s parents – and especially her dad, played by Colman Domingo – sounded very natural. In fact, I think Colman Domingo actually had the best performance of anybody in the film.
The second part of my script issue has to do with the loose ends in the story. So, I get that films like this aren’t going to wrap everything up into a perfect bow and I understand that the focus was on Tish and Fonny’s romance, but there were just so many things that were introduced that never had any pay-off. The most obvious example of this was Fonny’s family and the very heightened tension there.
We never see or hear about Fonny’s mother or sisters again after that scene. I also thought there was a decent set-up for Fonny’s lawyer and the personal growth he was experiencing with regard to his dedication to the case. But, that didn’t go anywhere either. I don’t know, I thought some of the more dragging, lingering parts of this film could have been used more interestingly to tidy up the plot lines a bit. But, this movie was nominated for the Oscar in Best Adapted Screenplay, so what do I know? I’m gonna give If Beale Street Could Talk 2.5 out of 5 paws.
I know that’s way lower than most people are giving it, but they’re just wasn’t a lot about this that I particularly liked. I didn’t hate it or anything, but it was very average and even the excellent cinematography couldn’t elevate this above fairly dull mediocrity for me. I would recommend If Beale Street Could Talk to fans of slower-paced romance movies. Like I said at the beginning, I knew exactly the type of movie this was gonna be based on the teaser trailer. And that teaser really doesn’t give anything away storywise, so if you watch it and think “Hey, that looks like a great movie!”, then I bet you’ll really like this.
But if the trailer doesn’t do anything for you… if it doesn’t pique your interest, then I don’t think any part of the movie will either. If you liked If Beale Street Could Talk, I would recommend you check out Barry Jenkins’ previous romantic drama effort: Moonlight. It tackles a different type of story, but there are a lot of similarities between the two films.
I’d also recommend Southside With You, which is a look at the early kindlings of the relationship between Barack and Michelle Obama. It has a similar softness to the look, the lighting of the film and is another good period piece. I would also recommend Fences. I didn’t personally care for that movie at all, but it’s a film that was adapted from a play and I was reminded of it a bunch of times as I watched If Beale Street Could Talk, so if you liked this one, I think you might like that one too. Okay, so some questions for you guys.
First: Have you seen If Beale Street Could Talk? If so, what’d you think of it? And second: How do you think the family get-together scene might have gone differently if they broke out Jenga instead of that cognac? By the way, I looked it up and found out Jenga didn’t come out until 1982, but the question still stands. Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.