If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that will grow in stature and appreciation over the next several years. Not that it’s being ignored now–Regina King will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and there will be other nominations as well. Director Barry Jenkins, who staked his claim as a director and screenwriter of substance and style with Moonlight (2016), continues to establish his importance and artistry. Beale Street has its moments of greatness and a few missteps, but it’s not so much produced and directed as woven lovingly together.
What the film is about is many things, including institutional racism, mother-bear love, religious hypocrisy, and romantic love. The plot, which the film sticks to for the most part, is about two model-beautiful people falling in love, and the obstacles that prevent this perfect-seeming match from reaching domestic bliss. It’s the background, of course, that provides the tension and conflict.
Jenkins’s style is dream-like and edgy at the same time. His takes are often very long, using pans instead of cuts in even the longest conversations; the feeling is of old-time films of the thirties and forties that pull you in and keep you there. The focus is generally shallow, embracing the two lovers while keeping the harsh outside realities out of focus, literally and figuratively. He often uses frontality as well, putting us in the middle of the film’s conversations (literally) or challenging us with the film’s Big Conversations. We are drawn slowly and inexorably into the reverie of love shared by Tish (KiKi Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James), who both speak softly and sweetly for the most part. It’s hard to create an immersive love story these days, especially when the love is challenged on so many sides. But Jenkins’ careful and moody cinematography, plus the gentle performances of the actors (even when the action kicks up) draws us in and allows us to experience the sensitive connection between these two.
That very approach, of course, is a warning as well as a creative approach to getting the viewer inside a relationship. Nothing this tender can remain unaffected by outside influences, whether it’s threatened with family opposition, mistaken victims, lying policemen, or even the challenges of everyday life. (A fascinating story could be made out of this relationship uninterrupted by unfair legal action. Where could this kind of dreamy love go when pressured by finances and children?)
The acting is solid throughout, but most attention is being paid to Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon. King, even in a supporting role, dominates the film and is its very heart, reminding me of Angelica Huston’s “owning” of Prizzi’s Honor, which also won Huston her Oscar. To help guarantee King the win, the film is structured to feature her lightly through the first part of the film, and then have her take the reins of the film toward the end with more highly emotional scenes. King keeps her intensity (and underlying anger) generally muted in the film, leading with maternal love and care, but showing strength at every turn. Her performance toward the end almost promises to release the intensity in a showy turn, but fortunately never does, keeping this part of the performance in synch with her earlier work. Though not one of the two leads, this is her film.
The two biggest weaknesses, IMHO, are the religious mom and the ending. As is becoming maddeningly common, the only person who professes a deep faith in the film is an odious, hypocritical, and cruel woman. At first, she only seems harshly judgmental. [Spoiler alert.] Then things go from bad to much worse, with statements that are certainly not representative of even the most intensely hypocritical person who professes faith. Her final comments before her “comeuppance” are loathsome, and we as viewers want her to shut her mouth. But not shutting it precipitates an act of violence worthy of a great deal of discussion. Part of us is happy that the cruel and tormenting speechifying is ended. But on second thought, are we to commend such physical cruelty (especially in this age of #MeToo and Time’s Up)? The film presents the act of violence as a logical response to religious-coated cruelty, and comes from an actor of sympathy and accessibility (Michael Beach). That moment deserves a little more thought and discussion. Is this OK because she presents as religious? In any other film, in any other context, the act would be reprehensible. Talk amongst yourselves….
The ending, to me, is problematic. More than one recent film (e.g., Imitation Game) moves from telling a story to informing us that this is only one example of a larger problem. The question is whether that weakens or strengthens what the film is trying to communicate. My vote is that it weakens it, as the film does here. Jenkins has involved us and moved us. He has made his points through his story. Mansplaining is a thing. Is filmsplaining going to become one, too?