‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ doesn’t live up to all the enormous acclaim
2.5 stars (out of four)
The film refers to Beale street in New Orleans and is based on a 1974 novel by James Baldwin. I do think the film is going to be handicapped by its title. It’s one of those titles that you can’t really figure it out. Because the novel was acclaimed and Baldwin was such an iconic novelist, they have left the title. But it really tells you nothing about the movie.
The movie is about a young couple deeply involved in Harlem in the 1970s. He is wrongly accused of rape, and after going to prison, his entire family is trying their best to get him out. His young lover finds out she’s pregnant, and it follows the struggles for the baby and to get this man out of prison.
It’s a film that’s slow-moving and artistic, but ultimately redeemed. The director is the very gifted Barry Jenkins, who made “Moonlight”, and here crafts a loving adaptation that captures the spirit of the novel.
This is really is a tragedy, not in the vein of “Romeo and Juliet”, because the families in this film come together to try and save the young man from the toils of implacable racism. It’s a truly remarkable performance by a young actor named Stephan James. And Kiki Layne is luminous playing his fiancée.
The big Oscar attention here is for Regina King, who plays the young girl’s mother who will do absolutely anything to protect the child that is coming, and to try to get this decent young man out of prison.
It’s one of those films that goes back in time and forward in time and back in time again. The performances make you root for these people who seem very real and very dimensional. But in terms of sustaining a very intense, lyrical pace, I’m not sure that the plot and the writing actually do that.
When you’re reading this in a novel it doesn’t feel slow-moving, and here it does. Each of the scenes is lovingly crafted, and you have to respect it, but the film does not quite deserve the enormous acclaim that it’s received. It’s won major awards from Seattle film critics and many other critic organizations and will probably be remembered at Oscar time.
What they’re responding to is something that’s explained at the very top of the film in a crawl: Somehow the jazz on Beale Street, led by Louis Armstrong, spoke volumes about the entire black experience in America, which is part of what this film tries to do.
However, will anyone who goes to see this film feel deeply disappointed in it? No, the film delivers the goods.