If Beale Street Could Talk, the new Barry Jenkins film.

If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the keen­ly await­ed fol­low up to the sur­prise hit that Bar­ry Jenk­ins had in 2016, when he won the Acad­e­my award for Best Film with Moon­light. And if that weren’t pres­sure enough, it’s a James Bald­win adap­ta­tion. 

Tish and Fon­ny are child­hood sweet­hearts, but the lat­ter is in jail hav­ing been false­ly accused of rape. And Tish is preg­nant with their first child. So she and their two fam­i­lies are try­ing des­per­ate­ly to some­how raise the cash need­ed to pay for what will almost cer­tain­ly be a fruit­less attempt at legal redress. 

Beau­ti­ful­ly shot and impec­ca­bly craft­ed, Jenk­ins takes an ellip­ti­cal approach to the nar­ra­tive as he moves back and forth through time to con­struct his sto­ry one piece at a time. Essen­tial­ly it’s a love sto­ry with shades of Romeo and Juli­et, as Fonny’s moth­er looks down from a height at the match her son has dis­as­trous­ly made with his unwor­thy mate.

This is bril­liant­ly cap­tured in what is in effect the cen­tral scene, as they two fam­i­lies square off from one anoth­er as Tish’s par­ents announce the hap­py news of her preg­nan­cy. And there­in lies the rub. For this scene is what the first third of the film cul­mi­nates with. And although the rest of the film is per­fect­ly fine, indeed most­ly very good, the rest of the film nev­er quite lives up to that first third.

Maher­sha­la Ali and Alex R. Hib­bert in Moon­light (2016)

This, you’ll remem­ber, is exact­ly what hap­pens with Moon­light, which I reviewed ear­li­er here. That film is divid­ed into three parts, and the first two, and espe­cial­ly the first, are excru­ci­at­ing­ly mov­ing. But the third is ever so slight­ly under­whelm­ing. Well, to put it in Wildean terms, to fail to ratch­et up the dra­mat­ic ten­sion of your sto­ry once is for­giv­able, but to do so twice feels like carelessness.

James Bald­win’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

All dra­ma must needs move through an arc, ris­ing and ris­ing, before final­ly falling. You need to pass through E C C C C; Expo­si­tion, Con­flict, Cri­sis, Cat­a­stro­phe before final Cathar­sis. And dra­mat­i­cal­ly speak­ing, both of Jenk­ins’ two prin­ci­ple films flat­line after the dra­ma of their first halves.

If Beale Street Could Talk is still a very good film, it looks rav­ish­ing and it’s a won­der­ful anti­dote to all that green screen non­sense. But Jenk­ins will need to work with some­one on struc­ture and the build­ing of dra­mat­ic ten­sion if he’s to avoid becom­ing but a bril­liant stylist.

You can see the trail­er to If Beale Street Could Talk here.

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