Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" was such a universally praised film that you knew whatever he made next would be met with tremendously high expectations. His decision to adapt James Baldwin's masterful 1974 novel "If Beale Street Could Talk" was unexpected but much welcome, as that novel's themes of social injustice, poverty, and racial disillusionment still very much resonate to this day.
Set in early ’70s Harlem, the novel recounted the story of a young African-American couple and a false accusation which leads to the incarceration of a young, 22-year-old man.
That 22-year-old is Fonny (Stephan James), and he is madly in love with his young 19-year-old girlfriend, Tish (Kiki Layne). The crux of drama, if you want to call it that, happens when Fonny is unjustly accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman and incarcerated indefinitely. When Tish discovers she’s pregnant, she gathers around both families to tell them the news, and suffice to say, Fonny's mother is none-too-pleased by it, and even curses the unborn child. This leads to her husband, ecstatic about the news of becoming a grandfather, slapping her in front of everyone, and walking out of the room. Tensions are obviously very high as both families deal with Fonny being jailed, and the never-ending lawyer fees piling up.
Jenkins, who vastly impressed us with "Moonlight," builds up a slow-moving narrative that doesn't always hit the mark. We all know he is infatuated with Wong Kar-Wai's cinema, so much so that I overheard someone name-check him as 'Wong Kar-Jenkins. From the amber-lit, shadowy frames, to the use of slo-mo, Jenkins uses the same stylistic techniques he used in his Oscar-winning film, but to a lesser effect here because, well, the source material he has at his disposal, although incredibly moving on page, feels almost unfilmable on screen. The meditative, pretentious approach that he decides to use in 'Beale' rings false, and makes you wonder whether he should have used a more formalist, less heavy-handed approach with his narrative.
Jumping back and forth between past and present, Jenkins uses flashbacks to slowly reveal the events that led to Fonny's arrest. There are fragmented moments here between James and Layne that are quite lovely --- both actors, relatively unknown, are also beautiful to look at and invest the kind of natural realism in their roles that will surely have casting agents calling them left and right in the weeks and months to come.
The moody atmosphere, driven by James Laxton's sumptuously gorgeous cinematography (those greens!), Nicholas Britell‘s exquisite musical score, and Jenkins' prescient eye for detail showcase the high-grade talent behind the camera. The film turns into a picturesque experience more than any kind of involving, tension-filled, or even emotional one.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jenkins is an important and vital part of the vast and growing movement of African-American cinema currently happening in the industry, but "If Beale Street Could Talk" turns out to be one of the lesser efforts of that movement and a movie that only hints at the filmmaker's artistic potential. [C+]