The point seems elementary: Don’t build a drama around passive, hapless characters who amount to feathers on the winds of fate. Yet when it comes to portraying black folks, especially in movies aimed at the white art-house audience, the principle is often forgotten. Barry Jenkins, the director of one such film, Moonlight, has to be pleased with how that one turned out, given that it won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay while the movie itself won Best Picture. He takes the same tack in his follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk.
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, a poignant love affair set in 1970s Manhattan that is debuting this month at the New York Film Festival ahead of a November theatrical release, comes across on screen much as Moonlight did. Evocatively photographed, emotionally rich, and deeply grounded in its setting thanks to detailed production design, vivid costuming, and resonant musical cues, it nevertheless is plagued by simplistic plotting and characterizations. And it’s so ponderous and humorless that it makes the slow-moving Moonlight look like Girls Trip by contrast. Moviegoers would be well advised to have a double espresso on the way in; those who watch Beale Street later on TV will, I fear, have difficulty making it to the end. By which point a central problem remains unresolved anyway.
Kiki Layne and Stephan James play the young lovers Tish and Fonny, she 19 and he 22, who are deeply in love and plan to get married. When she becomes pregnant, her family greets the news with joy. Fonny, who works for a furniture manufacturer, has quit his job and stolen all the tools, hoping instead to make it as a sculptor of abstract pieces, and this action is presented as not his fault because the job was insufficiently inspiring to this sensitive soul. His troubles, and those of black folk in general, are simply a direct and obvious result of the atmosphere they breathe: “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth sh** and everything they saw around them proved it,” goes the narration.
A rudimentary story is drawn out via a time-shifting intercutting technique that casts a pall of doom over everything. Fonny gets put in jail after the pregnancy begins but before the couple can get married. The details emerge over a long period of screen time, but what happened turns out to be uncomplicated. A racist white cop frames Fonny for a rape, and a Puerto Rican woman mistakenly identifies him as her assailant due to a rigged police lineup. A friend of Fonny who could provide a critical alibi is also being victimized by the justice system, having been jailed for a car theft he didn’t commit and being blackmailed by police to withhold the truth about Fonny.
That’s pretty much the whole tale. The only reason it takes a two-hour movie to relate it is that Jenkins handles every conversation as painstakingly as the lugubrious, fun-free sex scenes in which lovemaking is a kind of solemn duty. People speak as though they’re being charged by the word, with pauses between phrases, pauses between sentences, pauses to reflect on pauses . . . remove all the pauses and the movie would run about 25 minutes. There isn’t an arc here; nobody really changes. Nor is Fonny a tragic figure, since he lacks both greatness and a fatal flaw. He’s just an ordinary nice guy who is meant to be a stand-in for millions of other nice guys who were jailed for no reason. Jenkins brings in historical photos of chain gangs and police abuse of black men to bolster the point, but as a how-we-got-here explanation of the problem of mass incarceration, the film is simply off-point. There may be nice guys in prison, but it’s not true that the prisons are full of nice guys. Fonny doesn’t typify the problem. He’s an outlier.
Even if your view of the criminal-justice system (in New York City, in the 1970s) is that it’s hopelessly poisoned by racism, the movie’s portrayal of how it works doesn’t carry much depth: The cops are wolves on the prowl, while the black people are wide-eyed lambs. America is portrayed as effectively an apartheid regime in which blacks have no chance. The problem with such a take in dramatic terms is that it strips black Americans of their agency and dynamism, reduces them to pity receptacles. It’s not a sophisticated view but a reductionist one.