Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk
R | 1h 59min
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins (written for the screen by), James Baldwin (based on the book by)
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
by Jason Koenigsberg
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins had his hands full trying to follow up his outstanding previous Best Picture Winner Moonlight (2016) which was one of the most powerful empathy generator movies of the decade. Well, he sure comes close with If Beale Street Could Talk, it may not win him the top prizes this year but this is still a very emotionally complex and powerful film. Now there are high expectations for the director. Barry Jenkins career so far is like a baseball player that came out of nowhere and won the MVP for his breakout season, then he follows it up with a stellar All-Star season but is unable to duplicate his previous effort and is not exactly the best of his peers. Like Moonlight, above all else, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story and a beautiful one at that about working class people.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens up with an explanation about the title and what the book means to African-American culture from the author James Baldwin, then goes right into a long beautiful shot opening shot of a couple walking down a sidewalk in a park. We see them holding hands through some trees. Both are wearing similar bright colors of yellow and blue. The colors in If Beale Street Could Talk are intentionally dominant in some scenes. The first scenes are photographed so crisp and clear, the nice weather permeates the screen and transports the viewer to this beautiful day in the park.
The performances are all terrific especially the lead Kiki Layne who has the difficult task of playing naive and strong-willed at the same time and she does so very efficiently. She narrates the film and has an eloquent speaking voice yet for some reason the way it was done, she sounds muffled with a weird echo as if she is underwater. Perhaps this was done intentionally to show that her character is drowning under the circumstances that take place during the movie but it was distracting at times.
The plot of If Beale Street Could Talk should be kept under wraps because it made the story more compelling and surprising as we went on the journey with this couple and how their actions affect both of their families very differently. The trailers do not reveal much so unless you have read the book, it would be most advantageous to go into If Beale Street Could Talk knowing as little as possible, other than that it is a beautiful and emotional experience.
The dialogue is both poetic and natural, two words that are not always synonymous but it works here. If Beale Street Could Talk shows a vastly different dynamic between how the men and women talk in their families and how different individuals deal with their faith being a huge part of this African-American community. It is also admirable how director Barry Jenkins has the film take place in New York City but other than a few subway signs and mentioning of where police were at and some landmarks in geography involving the plot If Beale Street Could Talk could take place in any metropolitan city and anytime in the past fifty years for that matter. We see record players and a noticeable absence of smartphones, but the actions in If Beale Street Could Talk could be happening now, or in a previous decade. Like Wes Anderson’s pictures, Barry Jenkins managed to create a timelessness in this world that is no easy task for a director to make. The way he directs the love scenes has such tenderness and honesty to them that the nudity feels romantic and pure in a way few films can capture. A lot comes from the performances but the lighting and cinematography give the scenes the perfect amount of warmth that is required. The final shot connects nicely with the clear opening moment with our couple has gone through very difficult experiences and the colors, especially yellow are still prevalent, but in a more muddled and disheveled light to show their confused state and that their love may be the only bright light in their lives.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about injustice, mainly police and a broken criminal justice system. It examines the ramifications of police actions not just on the victim but on his family and the implications of that injustice on future generations. It could have been an alarming wake-up call to all the people that turn a blind eye to this injustice and in some ways it is, but this film as stated previously is predominantly a love story and sends the message that real love will trump hate despite any injustices thrown in its way.