I spent two hours watching If Beale Street Could Talk and I wasn't quite sure what happened. The film wasn't what I was expecting; it was ponderous, a bit forgettable, and ultimately just fine.
The first English-language film adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, the Barry Jenkins–helmed If Beale Street Could Talk is set in 1970s Harlem. It follows the story of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), a young and deeply in love black couple torn apart after Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman and thrown in jail. After learning that she's pregnant, Tish and her family race to clear Fonny's name and get him out of prison before the baby is born so their life together can continue.
Okay, yes, I followed the story, and yes, I got teary-eyed and enraged at the appropriate moments. But as I made my way out of the Regal Meridian, I was thinking not about the movie I'd spent a good part of my afternoon watching but about my fucking groceries. Not love, not the carceral state, not actor Stephan James wearing nothing but his boxers, not the souls of black folk, but whether the cucumber in the back of my fridge had spoiled and if I'd need to buy another one.
I tried not to compare it to Jenkins's previous film, Moonlight, but I couldn't help it. Moonlight was such an emotional tour de force of a film, contemplative but tethered, motivated more by emotion than plot, but still within a structure that gave it meaning. If Beale Street Could Talk couldn't seem to negotiate emotion or structure very well, using Tish as a narrator to comment on the plot of the film but also using emotional, nonlinear flashbacks, only adding to the diffuse nature of the story.
That's not to say there aren't excellent moments and performances.
Brian Tyree Henry's brief appearance as Fonny's childhood friend Daniel, who recounts his own false imprisonment, brings a haunted depth that resonates throughout his scenes. Regina King as Tish's mother, Sharon, radiates familial love in all its steadfastness and strength. Cinematographer James Laxton's warm palette often resembled a well-loved timeworn photo.
And while the movie didn't necessarily seem rote or follow a well-trodden Black Prestige Cinema path, its meditative quality came off as noncommittal, leaving me a bit unsatisfied. Perhaps I'm just not used to dealing with the weighty nature of racial injustice experienced by black Americans and a ruminative meditation on love in the same film. Topically, both should be given enough space and mesh together in a way If Beale Street Could Talk didn't quite do.
As a Baldwin fan and a Jenkins fan, it seems almost sacrilegious to admit to being unmoved, or worse, bored, by their work—this pairing should be a slam dunk. And although the film is beautifully shot and filled with great performances, ultimately If Beale Street Could Talk lacks that deep gut punch that makes a movie stick.