True, But Tried

Barry Jenkins first movie post-Moonlight breaks no new ground

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

If Beale Street Could Talk
Opens Jan. 4

I may have a blind spot regarding filmmaker Barry Jenkins. I’m on record as saying of his 2016 Academy Award winner Moonlight: “all three vignettes are harrowing, but in the end, the film lacks the final emotional punch that could have made it memorable.”

I’m in a similar situation again now. If Beale Street Could Talk is a critical darling, yet I’m reluctant to call it a triumph as it’s way too precious to tap into the raw emotionality of the source material. This is Jenkins buying into his own hype.

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Beale Street is anchored by a young couple, Tish and Alonzo, about to have their first child. The pregnancy causes disruption in their respective families (think 1970s middle class Harlem), but that’s nothing compared to a rape allegation against Alonzo. The police are only too happy to put Alonzo behind bars, while his and Tish’s relatives scramble to pay for a competent defense and pursue leads law enforcement couldn’t be bothered to follow.

The novel’s prime message, that the chips are stacked against the black community, remains as relevant as it was 40 years ago. Still, Beale Street feels dated. Every aspect of the African American experience touched on (police brutality, institutional bias, ingrained racism, religious zealotry) has been dealt with, and in much more depth, by a subsequent generation of black artists. It’s a common problem when tackling a classic piece of literature. Odds are it’s been mined to exhaustion

The single contribution of Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, is to add a mournful lyricism to the proceedings — an approach that helps audiences gently drift into slumber. The performances are fine, but nothing to write home about. Alleged standout Regina King doesn’t do anything she hasn’t done in such films as American Crime and The Leftovers.

I really tried to like If Beale Street Could Talk. But the film left me cold, bored and with the sense that my dismissal of Moonlight wasn’t that far off.