Barry Jenkins is killing it. In a good way. Anyone that is anyone knows this. Moonlight shocked people several years ago when it surprisingly still won Best Picture over La La Land and Jenkins won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, on his first theatrical feature. So now we have his follow up, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, and while don’t get me wrong, I still found it very good, I didn’t find it in the same ballpark of greatness that I found Moonlight, and that was only due to what I felt was one major misstep that I’ll get to later.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about a young African American woman that lives in Harlem that reveals to her family that she is pregnant with the baby of her lifelong friend turned fiance, who happens to be in jail of a rape crime that he did not commit. Her and her family try to prove his innocence and get him out of jail before she has the baby. It’s a very well told story. The movie goes back and forth in time, and focuses on the blooming love between the two rather than just showing the inciting incident and its aftermath. We get to know the characters very well and most of the emotions are earned.
I loved the fact that they didn’t show the actual rape being committed to a poor Puerto Rican woman, and I loved the fact they didn’t show the event of him being arrested for it, the woman picking him out of a line up, etc, etc. Any other movie would do that. Not showing the audience that cliched storytelling device, and just lightly telling us a summary of what happened, while still showing and focusing on the love between the two protagonists, is the smartest thing writer/director Barry Jenkins did with this. It makes me want to go and read the book and see what that was done differently. I know in my reviews that I have a tendency to complain when movie just tell us instead of show us. But this is an exception. The movie shows us the love blossoming between the two lovers which in a way shows us their plight without actually having to show us in graphic detail how that plight started.
The one thing that keeps this movie from entering my top 20 films of the year list and me proclaiming it was a masterpiece and that it is as good or better than Moonlight, is the acting. Except for the incredible Regina King, which for all intents and purposes I’d say just hand her the Supporting Actress Oscar right now, the acting is a little too over the top and melodramatic. Well, sort of. Let me explain. I think the main protagonist woman, Tish, played by KiKi Layne, was miscast. She plays the very young innocent woman thing wayyyy too over the top and melodramatic that I felt in the end her character was one dimensional. The most melodramatic scene in the movie, which should’ve been the most realistic and powerful, is when she tells her family and her fiances family that she is pregnant. And the mother of the jailed son is so over the top Bible preaching type woman that it took me out of the movie the entire scene and I struggled for a few minutes getting back into it. The only reason I got back into the movie was Regina King. She is THAT good in this.
At first I thought the jailed son, Fonny, played by Stephan James, was overdramatic and one dimensional, but his character has the most growth and an actual arc, especially after this incredible long conversation about the evils of white people with his friend, played by Brian Tyree Henry, who confesses that he had been in jail the past two years and can’t speak of what happened to him in there (sorry, forgot to mention the movie goes back and forth in time, and it does that perfectly well and it isn’t scatterbrained at all).
And I thought the ending was quite perfect too, considering the movie is set in the late 60s/early 70s. The movies underlying message evolves throughout the whole runtime, with the ending packing one hell of an emotional punch. If you see this and don’t like the ending, consider the time it is at. Actually, I think the ending could work in our times today (which was probably the damn point, duh).
Anyway, I still really do like this film. I really do. I love Regina King in it, I can’t sing her praises enough. And the convo between Stephen James and Brian Tyree Henry I won’t be able to get out of my head. But most of the other acting was too over the top, melodramatic, and not realistic enough for me to take seriously. It felt like I was watching a play (which if it were the acting would’ve been fantastic) and not a theatrical feature. Maybe the book presents it like a play and after I read it I could re examine the whole film? Maybe. But I’m reviewing this with my own personal taste and it is just how I felt. Maybe you’ll feel different and think I’m insane for not putting it in my top ten. But hear me out, it is a really good movie, just a few things, just on my end, that kept it from me considering it a masterpiece. I’m still highly recommending it.