If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins movie Moonlight won a few Oscars (including that confusing “best picture” award). It was good, not great. I was eager to see how Jenkins would sink his teeth into a James Baldwin book from the early ‘70s. Now the confusion is…why critics are praising it.

The only thing in this movie worthy of praise, is how beautifully it’s shot. Oh, and the costume design. Some of the shots, with the leaves of the tree framing the lovely couple, looked splendid. Everything else is awful.

Anybody that isn’t just looking for an excuse to hate cops and the criminal justice system, will watch this and wonder why they did. It has simplistic characterizations. It has a light, jazzy musical score that I loved hearing in the trailers, but the film relied on too heavily to evoke emotion (instead, it just got annoying).

Many scenes felt like a stage play, instead of authentic characters.

Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a cute young couple. When they walk arm in arm, it seems they have chemistry. It’s a shame that when she loses her virginity to him, it’s perhaps the worst love scene I can recall. First, there’s no fumbling or awkwardness involved. And that’s fine, they’re going for romance, not humor or embarrassing moments. Yet the way they put on a record, take off their clothes, kiss, and just stare into each other’s eyes the entire time (with annoying close-ups)…it made me cringe. Easily the least romantic lovemaking in a movie, that’s supposed to be the opposite.

When Tish gets pregnant, much to her surprise, the family is thrilled. Fonny’s family…not so much. That makes for a bizarre scene that didn’t feel the least bit realistic.

Fonny makes furniture, but really wants to make sculptures for a living.

This plan is derailed when a racist cop pins a rape on Fonny. The Puerto Rican woman that was “raped” identifies Fonny in a bogus police lineup, and then quickly flees back home. That means Tish’s mom, despite the family not having a lot of money, hops on a plane to find the woman. Uh…okay. Not sure how this was the best course of action, or why they thought it would be.

Oh, we’re also supposed to believe this unjust justice system is keeping a friend with an alibi away from providing that because of a car theft he didn’t commit.

I think a lot of people are going to be fooled into thinking this is great art. Yet if you really dissected this movie, it’s awful. It feels like student filmmakers made it, not an Oscar winner. Perhaps you could say the same thing about Moonlight, as it had an amateur vibe in many ways, but it’s different here. The performances aren’t bad, and it’s shot beautifully…but the dialogue is…crap. What characters say isn’t interesting. They have lots of awkward pauses between phrases.

None of the characters are that interesting, and none of them change. So there’s no arc.

I disliked the moments where Tish would chime in to narrate things, and the black and white photos shown…didn’t move me. They wanted to show us police brutality, but…it didn’t work with this narrative. It felt out of place to me, the way it did with Spike Lee ending his BlacKkKlansman with scenes of a Trump rally and a car running over protestors. I’d prefer the narrative do all the talking, and not editorializing with other elements to try and persuade us. And I think we all agree…there are some innocent people in prison. Yet this movie would have you believe that…the jails are filled with nice guys that were wrongly convicted. That’s a hard premise to buy.

People always say the book is better than the movie, and although I’ve never read the James Baldwin novel, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s better than this awfully boring picture. It was over 2 hours long, and I have to admit…I fell asleep for 15 minutes in the middle of it.

It felt like a bad stage play, much the way Denzel Washington’s Fences did.

1 star out of 5.