Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
Typically, I write a review of a movie on the same day that I watch it. While that’s not 100%, it’s common enough that it’s more or less my standard process with this website, even if I end up storing the review to post at a later date. As it happens, I have dozens of unposted reviews that will show up here someday. In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, I’m writing this review almost 24 hours after watching the film. This has nothing to do with my schedule, and everything to do with the fact that, once I was done, I realized that I had nothing to say about it.
This sounds like I didn’t like the movie, and that wouldn’t be an accurate assessment. I literally had nothing to say about it, either positive or negative. If Beale Street Could Talk more or less washed over me as a story I felt like I had seen before any number of times. And so I’m desperately conflicted about it. It’s well made. I love the pace at which the story is told, and the dream-like quality that comes up throughout the film makes the experience all that much more effective. But this is a very simple story of race and injustice, and it’s a story that we’ve all seen before a number of times.
It’s not specifically clear just how simple this story is until we get to the end of it. The fact that the narrative is kind of nonlinear (but not entirely) probably adds a good 30-40 minutes to the telling of the story. The story, though is that, in the 1970s, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have grown up together and eventually fall in love. The two plan to spend their lives together, and despite racism that crops up in every instance in their lives, they find a place to live. Tish is aggressively accosted by someone and protected by Fonny, but threatened by a cop (Ed Skrein).
All of this would be standard, but we need to ramp this story up to 10. Shortly after this event, the same officer strong-arms a rape victim into accusing Fonny of the crime, and he’s tossed into prison where his only hope of eventually getting out is taking a plea deal for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s reinforced that Fonny not only didn’t commit the crime in question, but physically could not have done so and then be picked up across town afterward. Fonny’s incarceration is specifically because of the cop in question. And, shortly after he is put in prison, Tish learns that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child.
So here’s the thing about If Beale Street Could Talk: it’s a good movie, a compelling story, and it’s well-made. It’s also a story that, when the non-linear structure is broken down and put in chronological order, I’ve seen before again and again. I’m not immune to stories of racism or any other sort of –ism. As someone who is a member of a (non-) religious minority, I’ve not only experienced some minor prejudice in my life, I’m in a group that still tends to be the bad guys in at least an entire genre of film. Atheists haven’t gotten their “prejudice against us is bad” movie yet.
That’s not sour grapes, or at least it’s not intended to be, because if that’s what this movie turned out to be, I think my reaction would be the same. I get why this is a story that needs to be told and why people still need to see this story told again and again, but it’s a story that I feel like I’ve got a good handle on. Racism is shitty. People who do things to others specifically because of race or gender or religion or ability are shitty people. I get it. I’m there.
And so I have to wonder on some level if I have this sort of reaction to If Beale Street Could Talk because I’ve seen it too many times and feel like I don’t need to any more or if it’s because I feel it too intently. I’ve been told multiple times that I have a significantly advanced sense of justice—that injustice tends to affect me on a very deep level, and perhaps seeing this story yet again has simply triggered in me the sort of rage that I feel when observing any sort of life-destroying injustice.
The truth is that If Beale Street Could Talk angered me. It didn’t anger me because of the quality of the film or of the cast. It didn’t anger me because it offended or bored me. It angered me because it still needs to be made. What makes Beale Street work is not that this is a story about the past that is being told now, but that it’s a story that can still be told. It’s a story that didn’t need to take place in the 1970s, but could take place now. And it makes me tired that this is the world we still live in.
So, ultimately, this is a very good movie, but it took a psychic toll on me. That’s not the movie’s fault; it’s society’s.
Why to watch If Beale Street Could Talk: There’s a tragic beauty in how this story unfolds.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen this story before.