If Beale Street Could Talk is not the awards movie you expected to see this season. It is essentially a love letter to the work of James Baldwin, and an obvious well-budged arthouse passion project for Barry Jenkins, best described as equal parts Fences and Douglas Sirk. The central issue with this film is the central narrative edged on being too slight with all too familiar themes on racism on African American people. Yet the themes on love, identity, and family are told in bold new ways that I wish the film committed more to. The two lead actors played by Kiki Layne and Stephen James felt more adept for the live stage than screen, but still showcases a show-stopping performance by Regina King.
Beale Street operates as a far more lyrical companion piece to Moonlight. The characters perform in stilted Baldwin-speak, numerous montages, and the structure is reminiscent of a fading memory. Think like a tone and picture poem compiled through excessive jump cuts, photomontages, change in a technical style, film format changes, visual alterations of color, heavy narration, and Jenkins’ signature slowing down the frame rate. It is not exactly as straightforward as the marketing leads on. There is a beautiful and emotionally propulsive monologue delivered by Stephen James’ where he is awaiting a trial that I felt is the movie’s peak and made me wish the movie contained scenes of similar value.
One of the most positive aspects I can say about the picture is its representation of the black experience and its use of multiple perspectives, but what can not be salvaged is the pacing, which can be rough for a film of two hours. It was tough for me to get into it until the picture until the last third. It also takes a stance in one crucial scene towards the value of victim-blaming that really does not match the liberal-minded ideals of today’s times, and it’s unsettling to watch unfold. The scene itself is Regina King’s solely featured moment in the film, but it’s her explaining to a victim that she’s wrong about her rape accusation despite how adamant the victim was about picking her son in law out of police lineup rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps the scene’s message is always to believe women, but we’re supposed to be rooting for Regina King to vindicate her son of rape. It’s unsettling to watch the confrontation with the victim unfold. The situation quickly spirals out of control, with the victim having a traumatic mental breakdown right in front of her. Regina King is pretty sensational at that moment, but it treads of making me feel comfortable in my seat. The technical elements that stood out to me most were the striking costume design, the sweeping score, and boasts some of the loveliest cinematography you’ll see all year. [B-]