Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

OSCARS 2019: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

“Moonlight” winning Best Picture two years ago was a surprise and not just because “La La Land” had been announced as the winner a few minutes prior. A low budget film about a gay black man with few recognizable stars and running under 90 minutes would not normally seem like Best Picture material. Yet Barry Jenkin's scrappy indie beat the odds and took home the top prize. It would seem the Academy was not as excited by his follow-up. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” despite largely enthusiastic reviews, would only grab three nominations. The reason why is tricky to answer. What gets nominated frequently has more to do with campaigning than actual quality. Yet it is fair to say that “Beale Street” is a less accessible film than Jenkins’ debut.

Above all else, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story, told in non-linear order, in and around 1970s Harlem. Its subject is Tish and Fonny, who started out as childhood best friends before becoming lovers. After the couple move into their own home, Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. This is despite Fonny being with Tish and their friend Daniel at the time of the incident. While Fonny is in prison, Tish discovers she’s pregnant. The families react in different ways to this news. Meanwhile, Tish and her mother do what they can to clear Fonny’s name, so that he can see his child grow up.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” relies heavily on voice-over narration, Tish and other characters expounding on her thoughts as they happen. The film is adapted from a beloved novel by James Baldwin. I have not read Baldwin’s book but I suspect Jenkins took many of the monologues directly from the page. Despite giving voice to its lead characters’ thoughts, there’s something closed-off about the film. There’s a floral, arch quality to the narration and dialogue. Everything feels perfectly placed and designed, in such a way that the viewer never feels like we are getting to know any of these people. Instead, we are being exposed to very carefully presented versions of these characters and events. The emotions are sincere but something about them feel inaccessible and unnatural.

This can be seen in Jenkins’ visual approach as well. Though lacking the colorful lighting of “Moonlight,” this is still a sumptuous looking film. The interiors are rich in their shading, most evidently in the passionate and romantic scene where Tish and Fonny make love for the first time. Or the sequences devoted to Fonny’s love of wood-working. Yet the odd coldness of “If Beale Street Could Talk” is obvious in Jenkins’ writing. Jenkins is making a movie about the black experience here, evident in the unfair way Fonny and others are treated by a racist system. Tish’s narration often expands out onto the topic of racial injustice in general. While this is undoubtedly an important topic, this continues the impression that “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a movie more about ideas than people.

I had trouble connecting with the film, largely because every time it presented a story thread or idea that interested me, it subsequently abandons that angle. After announcing her pregnancy, Tish is confronted by Fonny’s hyper-religious mother. She wishes the worst on the baby, considering its entire existence sinful. That could’ve opened up into a fascinating conflict, especially concerning the role religion played in 1970s Harlem. But the character never appears again after that scene. That moment ends when Fonny’s father, more receptive to the pregnancy, strikes his wife. The ramifications of this action are never considered. Upon moving into their new home, Fonny and Tish discover their landlord is a meek Jewish man. If you are hoping for some interesting contrast of cultures, don’t get too excited. This character also only has this one scene. As for the woman who accuses Fonny of rape, we are denied any insight into the reasoning for her actions. Jenkins favors terse conversation and long shots of people starring into each others’ eyes over developing the film’s cast or world.

I can’t blame the cast for my inability to get into “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The performances are largely excellent. KiKi Layne, making her feature film debut, is very impressive as Tish. Layne’s confident and thoughtful voice directs much of the film, being immediately captivating and giving us a clearer idea of who this person is than the actual film did. Stephen James is also excellent as Fonny, a man of immense charm and deep insight. The film doesn't give us too much access to those thoughts but you can see them on James' face. Regina King, the only nominated actor from the film, really shines in the scene where she confronts Fonny’s accuser. There’s a powerful outpouring of emotion there. Aunjanue Ellis also really impressed me in her one scene as Fonny's mother, a woman who uses her religious faith as a weapon to bully people.

As you can probably tell, I wanted to like “If Beale Street Could Talk” way more than I actually did. The skills of Jenkins and his cast are very evident and obviously on display. Yet something about this one just didn't click for me. As a love story, you can never connect with its characters or themes. And the film stubbornly refuses to let you into that warmth, playing at times like a passionate play performed behind glass. (It's also very slow, to the point where I had trouble not nodding off during my screening.) The film has been received with a lot of love in most corners, so I guess I'm the outlier here. Either way, I still look forward to seeing Jenkins' next film. [5/10]

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