It’s hard to watch If Beale Street Could Talk without thinking about writer/director Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight. Both films do a lot with tone and mood, and both are quite powerful. Moonlight is tense, dramatic and emotionally stirring. His follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, is based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel. It’s a lush, haunting love story, set against the horrific, and unfortunately timeless backdrop of racial tension in America.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are two young people in love, in early 1970’s Brooklyn. They only recently fell in love, but they’ve known each other since they were kids. After he is wrongly accused of raping a woman and imprisoned, Tish learns she’s pregnant. Her family is excited but worried for her. Her mother (Regina King) sets out to help her prove Alonzo’s innocence, and have him out of jail before the baby is born. We cut between that storyline as we watch a separate narrative of the two falling in love.
This is heartbreaking, gorgeously filmed and emotionally effective filmmaking, but it isn’t as good as Moonlight. It’s a slow-burn, and at times, it feels really slow, but it’s obvious why this story had to be told this way. It is so specific in the time and setting and its characters. By the end of this story, you deeply care about these characters and what becomes of them. It’s a story about the thrill of first love, and then the gradual heartbreak when the world tears it all apart.
Newcomer Kiki Layne is very good in the lead role. She has a vulnerability that tells you everything you need to know about Tish, even when we first meet her. Stephan James is giving an equally nuanced and heartbreaking performance, as the love of her life that’s been stripped away from her. We spend a lot of this movie watching the star-crossed lovers simply fall in love. We see them in the beginnings of their romance, with stars in their eyes and hope for the future, and it’s all the more powerful when we cut back to present day and everything is coming undone.
However, Regina King is the one who ultimately steals the show as Tish’s soft-spoken, and yet powerful mother. King is an actress who has consistently turned in very good work, and I’m glad this role is finally giving her the recognition she deserves. A scene involving her character in a hotel room getting ready to go out to a meeting is one of the best scenes in the movie. The emotions that have to go across King’s face, as she is struggling with the different versions of herself she has to be in different moments, is an example of truly exceptional acting.
That said, there are a few problems here. I do not like how the film handled the scene where we meet the woman who has accused Alonzo of rape. If the film doesn’t treat her like a villain, she’s certainly an obstacle. In the macro, it’s clear, however, that this is a story full of people who have been destroyed by the world around them, and this character is no exception. But every time they mention her, she’s on the run or she’s in hiding, and it sends a weird message.
If Beale Street Could Talk is slow, but deliberate in its pacing. This film has two things I normally can’t stand in a movie – a non-linear narrative and excessive voiceover narration, and somehow, both storytelling devices add to what we’re seeing onscreen in a way that isn’t normally done to this effect. While not every moment works, the majority of this film is powerful and emotionally gripping storytelling. That said, it’s also so deeply depressing, I couldn’t imagine a second viewing. It sometimes feels relentlessly bleak, but it’s ultimately hopeful. I’m certainly glad I saw it in the theater. Definitely catch it before Oscar night.