Movie Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a dreamlike reflection of reality
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins (written for the screen by), James Baldwin (based on the book by)
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Synopsis: A woman in Harlem embraces her pregnancy while she and her family struggle to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime.
There’s a level of empathy and care that emerges from all three of Barry Jenkins’ films. From the couple of Medicine for Melancholy, to the battered and empty vessel of Moonlight, every character seems like someone that Jenkins took care of, and helped grow. Following 2016’s masterpiece, Moonlight, Jenkins’ turn an obsession of his into his next project. After attempting to adapt it, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a literary masterpiece, became his next project. the result is one of the most fascinating and equally great films that I’ve seen from 2018. Beale Street acts as a combination of a few things. Barry Jenkins is a visual filmmaker who creates perfect tone and mood. James Baldwin is a prose stylist, an artist whose work isn’t in the characters, or the story creating a very literary world. These two styles don’t necessarily lend themselves to each other, Jenkins’ visual portraits and Baldwin’s literary dexterity, but Jenkins’ If Beale Street Can Talk wonderfully bridges the two.
If Beale Street Can Talk is quite a wonder. It’s a combination of the atmosphere that Jenkins consistently cultivates, with the voiceover out of a Wong Kar-wai film, with the theatricality of Baldwin’s dialogue. This combination shouldn’t work, and yet the atmosphere that is cultivated leads the film. It’s an odd concoction, a weird blend of different elements, but somehow, the overall tone and beauty prevails. There’s moments that call to mind the voiceover, musical cues, or the slow-mo of Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. There’s a smoldering delicacy to both of the films; different images and memories from both stick in ones head for days.
On top of visual grandeur and beauty, there’s a certain magnificence that comes with the performances here. There’s a theatricality of Baldwin’s writing, which makes certain scenes almost suited for the stage, but still swamped in that Jenkins’ beauty which stops it from becoming too didactic and performative. Take an early scene where two ends of the family have to meet: every character gets a word in, and yet the background is almost more powerful. The knowledge of history between the two families comes with every line, every movement. Every performance here is excellent and gentle, from the wonderful and acclaimed Regina Hall, to even a heartbreaking scene with Brian Tyree Henry. Every person feels genuine, if not important.
Barry Jenkins is a once-in-a-generation talent. Every Time I think about Beale Street, I’m transported to a different location in Harlem, or a different little gesture from one of the actors. There’s so much going on in this film, and I’m not sure if I’ve gotten everything out of it that I will in the future, but that’s why I’ll be revisiting it as soon as I can. There’s an entire world created in this movie, a reflection of our reality, but soaked in Jenkins’ dreamlike view.
Overall Grade: B+
Hear our podcast review on Episode 306: