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  If Beale Street Could Talk The White Man Is The Devil
Year: 2018
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Miles, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) knew her boyfriend Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) since they were little kids, they had been friends, and as they matured grew closer until they became lovers recently. But while they were planning their life together, their optimism was cruelly dashed when Fonny was accused of rape by a woman in a different part of New York City where they lived, and he was sent behind bars until his trial, despite his protests of innocence. To complicate matters, Tish discovers soon after this that she is pregnant with Fonny's child, and goes to meet him to tell him so; he is alarmed at first, but then pleased, which is more than the reactions of his mother will be when she finds out...

When Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for Moonlight, it seemed like things were changing in Hollywood where an expressly African American story could walk home with the gongs rather than the more white-oriented movies that traditionally scored at such awards ceremonies. Whether it was overrated or justified, the fact remained it was a significant success, and great things were expected of this director. Therefore next, he aimed high and went for a literary adaptation, of James Baldwin's acclaimed nineteen-seventies novel If Beale Street Could Talk, which seemed set to make plain all of this filmmaker's concerns about race, relationships and injustice in America.

However, something happened from page to screen, and though Regina King (as Tish's mother) won an Oscar too, the movie may have been praised by the critics, but it failed to catch on with audiences. The reason for that was not so much the subject matter, though the fear they would be going to the theatres to be lectured for two hours cannot have helped, but it was more to do with Jenkins' technique: he simply came across as out of his depth, and no amount of pretty pictures and moody atmosphere could remedy that. If that were not bad enough, instead of being a vibrant, urgent story, once the narrative was established it turned excruciatingly boring for the rest of it.

Every so often there would be interludes where either Tish's voiceover or a montage of photographs would inform us of the injustice facing black people in the United States, mostly centring on the system that saw them routinely hassled by the police, or worse, placed in jails for crimes they might not have committed, or at least did not justify the harsh sentences meted out. Fair enough, the American prison system has its vocal critics, and black men are disproportionately represented inside, but if Jenkins wanted to make a documentary, then he should have done so, and yoking this to a love story that was not half as remarkable as he seemed to think it was did not make for a happy marriage between romance and social message-making. Worse, if you did not know the book, you would wonder what the fuss was about.

Passages from the text were lifted to be spoken by the cast, either as Tish's monologues or as exchanges in the dialogue, and they refused to fly, sounding artificial, even pretentious, which was fatal in a film that was purporting to be tackling real world issues. Although setting it in the seventies did not improve matters, yes it was faithful to the source, but it did not render the film as particularly current, and you may wish Jenkins had tweaked the script to make it more contemporary than just pointing at how it was like back then and expecting us to compare it to the twenty-first century, then nod sagely with an "Ahh..." of recognition. It was very carefully photographed (by James Laxton) and scored (by Nicholas Britell) to ooze class, all the better to bring out the tragedy, yet these looked like a distraction, and did not dispel the boredom which sabotaged the film at every turn. Such an emotive subject should have been vital and rousing, but this merely petered out with a non-ending. A huge disappointment.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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