Too much mush
Friday, February 22, 2019
Justinian in Critics Corner, Film review, Miss Lumière

James Baldwin doused in a layer of syrup ... US justice ... Where's Atticus Finch when you need him? ... Black lives, white injustice ... Love, politics and melodrama ... Miss Lumière reviews If Beale Street Could Talk 

If Beale Street Could Talk it might have asked why Douglas Sirk was directing a film based on a novel by James Baldwin. 

Perhaps the film's actual writer/director Barry Jenkins has watched too many movies from the so-called golden era of Hollywood to be able to fully realise Baldwin's visceral account of the way black Americans live and were/are treated.

He pays direct homage to Baldwin in the film's opening by quoting him onscreen: 

"Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy." 

The trouble is Jenkins' Beale Street is saturated in heightened colour and soaked in soap. 

It's a real let down after Baldwin's skewering of prejudice in plain old black and white, shot through with merciless intelligence and humanity.

For most of this film Jenkins manages to turn the poetry of Baldwin's rage into mush.

He may have matured as a filmmaker technically since his beautiful, but painfully pretentious 2017 film Moonlight, but he goes soft at all the wrong moments, starting with the screenplay.  

In Jenkins' hands, Beale Street is a melodrama posing as a love story posing as a political critique.  

Inserting grainy black and white stills depicting white brutality towards "negroes" just doesn't cut it. 

And despite credible performances from the two charismatic young lovers - Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny - it lacks, dare I say it, soul.

That should rightly be regarded as a cinematic crime for anyone taking on Baldwin and delivering him to the big screen.

Plot-wise, it's an old story - innocent young black man is wrongfully charged with the rape of a non-black woman and finds himself trapped in the jaws of the US justice system (thanks Harper Lee). 

In this case the victim is a Puerto Rican woman who picks Fonny out of a police line-up under, it emerges, some duress from a nasty local cop.  

There's no Atticus Finch in sight, although an Atticus would-be, a young Jewish lawyer from the Bronx makes a brief, thwarted bid for his moral mantle.

Tish is pregnant, both their families are struggling and the rape victim suddenly disappears. 

Facing the prospect of an endlessly delayed trial, Fonny, like so many young black men in the same situation, does a plea deal. 

The whole sad and sorry story is told by Tish in a knowing voice-over oddly at odds with the on-screen naivety of her character.

While their relationship is sensitively portrayed, particularly the lovemaking scenes, and beautifully acted, it somehow rings untrue.  

Perhaps it's the Sirk factor again. Most scenes have that syrupy quality of being on stage, rather than on screen.

To add to the overwrought visual mix, rich and creamy music by Nicholas Britell accompanies much of young lovers' interaction - the magnificent Nina Simone a notable exception.

Several of the supporting characters do manage to convince - Tish's father (Colman Domingo) and mother (Regina King) are terrific, but Fonny's "holy-roller" mother (Aunjanue Ellis) comes across as nothing more than a caricature. 

Which is bizarre for a film written and directed by a black man about black lives and white injustice. 

There is one scene which captures the hope under the despair so common to Baldwin, in which Tish's mother counsels her riven daughter, rendering true Baldwin's fine words:

"Remember love is what brought you here. And if you trusted love this far, don't panic now. Trust it all the way."

It's a rare moment.

A comparison with Spike Lee's angry, inventive, hilarious and ultimately powerful recent film about US race relations BlacKkKlansman (also set in the sartorially bereft seventies and based on a book) reveals the intrinsic limp romanticism of Jenkins' script and direction. 

Perhaps it's telling that at the rich white man's party that is the Oscars, Jenkins' Moonlight won best picture in 2017.

It will be interesting to see if Lee's BlacKkKlansman will be allowed to do the same this year. 

Either way, If Beale Street Could Talk could have done with a lot more spike. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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