Barry Jenkins’ third feature-length directing effort is one-part harrowing crime drama and one-part sugar-coated romance. If those two genres don’t sound like a natural mix, that’s because they’re not. As a result, If Beale Street Could Talk is an uneven film that hits hard with a sobering inspection of race relations in the seventies, but feels bogged down by a rose-tinted love story that feels neither earned nor plausible.
Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Lane) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) are a young couple building a life together in Harlem. Their relationship enjoys a period of relative bliss, but falls victim to a racist society when Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The narrative jumps around throughout, sharing focus between their early days together and the later fight to get Fonny out of custody (led by a now-pregnant Tish).
Without a doubt, this legal battle is the strongest ongoing plot-thread. Jenkins’ depiction of a family rallying together in the face of desperate injustice is truly compelling, with matriarch Sharon Rivers (Oscar-nominated Regina King) providing some of the most affecting moments.
Presented in stark contrast are the early days of Tish and Fonny’s romance, which proves to be generally less engaging. The pair are smitten from the first shot of the movie, but the love they share doesn’t feel palpable until well over halfway through. Up until that point, lingering shots of admiration and repeated assurances of devotion feel more than a little contrived.
The value of these scenes emerges when the brutal reality of the real world crashes in on them. One such moment occurs when an old friend (played by Brian Tyree Henry) drops in on Fonny and Tish one day, cheerful on the surface before shifting into a heart-wrenching monologue about the trauma he faced during a wrongful term in prison. Likewise, an encounter between Fonny and a bigoted policeman outside a green grocer is a genuinely terrifying display of racial prejudice.
The fact that these scenes are two of the most powerful in the film goes some way towards making up for the moments that feel superfluous at best and tedious at worst. Nonetheless, the film never fully recovers from its central romance, which rarely feels genuine despite an abundance of poetic sentimentality. KiKi Lane and Stephan James are gifted actors who excel in the film’s darker moments, but generally lack chemistry when sharing the screen together. Had Jenkins adopted the same naturalistic dialogue that made Moonlight so universally touching, perhaps things would have been different.
Ultimately, the elegant score by Nicholas Britell does more to enforce an atmosphere of innocent romance than the script or any of its performers.
TL;DR | If Beale Street Could Talk succeeds in its disturbing look at the abhorrent biases of authority figures in the seventies, but would have benefited from a more nuanced romance.