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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

Cinema Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s book, the movie is prefaced by his quote that  ‘every black American was born in Beale Street.’  Which, being a metaphor for struggle, explains how it comes to be set in New York’s Harlem, not New Orleans. It is 1962 and ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) is in the slammer, charged with a rape that he did not commit, while his pregnant partner Tish (KiKi Lane) is desperately trying to have him acquitted. Barry Jenkins, director of the lauded Moonlight, has made a dreary and soppy film out of a story that inherently bristles with the question of racial discrimination while promising the climax of a gripping courtroom drama – but it’s all dissipated by mawkish sentimentality. Instead of committing himself to strong social comment, he prefers to focus on the intimacy of Fonny and Tish’s relationship, expressing it through an excessive use of full-screen close ups in which both characters look directly into the camera (resulting in tedious gushiness) and a couple of tepid sex scenes that are not so much passionate as time-wasting. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say ‘mate, I know Fonny and Tish love each other, but what’s happening with the crime investigation?’Regina King won an Oscar for her performance as Tish’s mother Sharon and, indeed, she does well with a script that may have worked better on stage than it does on the screen. An explosive incident of domestic violence early in the film, during which caricature predominates, is perturbing not merely because it depicts a physical attack on a woman, but because the viewer is not certain whether or not Jenkins is okay with it – I could not shake the horrible feeling that he saw the man’s thuggery as being justifiable. And the repeated flashbacks to the toddlers sharing a bath in singlets(!) is a farcical example of Hollywood’s prudishness. A monotonous and intrusive score consisting of about three notes acts like a lead weight on what is already a ponderous, self-pitying venture.

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