Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, the audience is told at the start of the film, where the story of the film is set and the place where Louis Armstrong was born.
The follow-up to his first Oscar Winner for Best Picture MOONLIGHT, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK sees one again the victimized black in a prejudiced light.
Based on the book by James Baldwin, the film follows a 19-year old woman fighting to free her falsely accused husband from prison before the birth of their child. If Beale Street could talk, the truth would have been revealed in the events that occurred and the husband set as a free man.
Tish (KiKi Layne) is only 19 but she is been forced to grow up fast. She is left pregnant by Fonny (Stephan James), the man she loves. But Fonny is going to prison for a crime he did not commit, due to, as clearly emphasized in the film by a racist white redneck cop. As the film begins, Tish must break the news to her family, and his. Tish’s mother, (Regina King), soon must decide how far she will go to secure her daughter’s future. The announcement makes the film’s best segment, the target of attack being overzealous Christianity. Fonny’s religious mother curses Tish’s baby hoping it to be born withered only to be slapped hard by her husband, in one of the film’s more energetic moments. But nothing more is heard from Fonny’s mother, who is undoubtedly the story’s most interesting character – the one one loves to hate, and an easy target.
For a film with such a fiery plot, Jenkins’ film is extremely slow-paced, sometimes unintentionally funny with many segments plain dragging along. One example is a 3-minute sequence where Tish’s mother tries on a wig, looking in the mirror for a while only to finally take it off when meeting the rape victims, the purpose of which is never made clear. One could probably fault the source material for there is hardly any surprise in the story, quite unlike Jenkins’ last film, but Jenkins does not allow his actors or his camerawork to perform as freely as in MOONLIGHT. The film also shifts uncomfortably among three subjects, Tish, her mother and Fonny. Anoher sequence shows prison visit where Fonny is visited by Tish. He has clearly been beaten up (red eyes, swollen lip and cut), but Tish never questions him about it or the incident raised.
Tish and her mother display characters, too perfect to be believable. Toronto’s own James at least displays a more credible Fonny with human flaws, angry at society and also angry at times at his wife.
It is odd that Jenkin’s style in BEALE STREET and MOONLIGHT is totally different. MOONLIGHT was original and looked improvised while BEALE STREET looks extremely and staged.
An interesting subplot involves the family’s young Jewish lawyer. His sincerity in the case is questionable but not dealt with in depth.
Flawed, but IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is still steps better than the awful THE HATE U GIVE!