“If Beale Street Could Talk” had the makings of a cinematic masterpiece. Based on the revered novel by James Baldwin and directed by Barry Jenkins, who won the 2016 Best Picture award for “Moonlight,” a lot of hype has surrounded this film during awards season; alas, the film did not live up to the anticipation.
The film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James (who is phenomenal in Amazon’s “Homecoming” series), along with an outstanding Regina King in an award earning performance as James’ mother. Set in 1970s Harlem, lifelong friends Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James) prepare to have a baby when Fonny is arrested for a rape he did not commit.
The film is timely and important, as it addresses police brutality and brims with black pride amidst its brilliant ensemble cast. The cinematography is gorgeous, along with the vibrant set design and costuming. Despite these good intentions, the film’s content falls flat.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is an exercise in telling, rather than showing. With an emphasis on dialogue rather than visual action, the film moves like a play. Films are a visual medium and connote emotion through cinematography. “If Beale Street Could Talk” completely ignores its visual potential by including static shots and characters that speak their intentions rather than exhibiting them through physical movement.
This emphasis on dialogue also leads to melodramatic acting and a sense of falseness rather than genuine feeling connoted in each scene. A confrontation between Fonny and Tish’s families exemplifies this phenomenon, with Fonny’s mother spiraling into cliched religious rhetoric that could have been explored with a more nuanced touch.
For a love story, Layne and James have barely any chemistry. Their attraction is assumed, rather than gradually built up, creating a distance between the viewer and the emotionally charged subject matter. Like reading a tragic newspaper headline without personal connection or involvement with the situation, the audience cannot empathize.
Furthermore, Fonny’s predicament and innocence is told in a very straightforward matter, rather than depicting the complexities of gender, race and class in the 1970s, of which the book has plentiful examples.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is technically a decent film at a first glance, with a recognizable structure and gorgeous cinematography. However, the film never dives beneath the surface of the intricate intersectional problems it attempts to address.
In comparison with Jenkin’s stunning “Moonlight,” the failings of “If Beale Street Could Talk” appear especially intense. An understated roller coaster ride of emotion, “Moonlight” captivates the viewer from start to finish through innovative cinematography and purposely subtle dialogue.
Perhaps the rich context of the Hughe’s novel of which the screenplay is adapted restricted Jenkins, in that he wanted to portray the text as accurately as possible. Either way, the film lacks the creativity and artfulness of “Moonlight,” treading into well-known territories of monotony and classic Hollywood cinema.
Jenkins can do better.
This article has been corrected to be more accurate.