Starring Regina King. Rated PG
“If Beale Street could talk/Married men would have to take their beds and walk/Except one or two who never drink booze/And the blind man on the corner who sings the ‘Beale Street Blues’.” That’s from W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues”, and the 1917 song’s self-referencing lines obviously inspired transcendent writer James Baldwin to name his 1974 novel after them.
The main drag of Memphis’s entertainment district was once synonymous with African-American aspirations and creativity, weighed down by institutionalized violence and crime. Baldwin wrote that all black folks in the New World were born on a Beale Street of some kind. And while Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins certainly gets the aspirational part of Baldwin’s story, his languid new movie somehow misses the rhythm of the street.
Vivacious newcomer KiKi Layne and talented Canadian Stephan James (Race, Selma) play 19-year-old Tish Rivers and slightly older Fonny Hunt, star-crossed lovers in ’70s Harlem. Fonny left his old haunts for a crummy walkup in Greenwich Village (as Baldwin did before him), to work as a sculptor. But his plans are thwarted by a racist cop (a cartoonish Ed Skrein), who frames him for raping a Puerto Rican woman in a faraway part of town.
That doesn’t leave much room for a love story, so Jenkins chops up the tale into time-jumping pieces so we can spend more minutes with the young lovers and their families. That strategy leads to many repetitive and sluggishly staged scenes in which the participants whisper non-Baldwinian words of devotion, only to have their resolve tested at every turn.
The book is narrated by the newly pregnant Tish, who sometimes assumes a more omniscient voice to describe cruel social machinations beyond her personal experience. Here, the narrator is multitracked and drenched in reverb, turning Tish into a kind of Greek chorus murmuring wise (if hard-to-follow) thoughts from a safe distance—an apt analogy for the meticulously art-directed movie, which aestheticizes suffering without exploring it.
Beale Street’s theatrically placid two hours are padded with needless cameos, including Dave Franco as a friendly Jewish landlord and Narcos star Pedro Pascal, who shows up during a side trip to Puerto Rico that works only as a vehicle to display Regina King’s considerable mettle as Tish’s tough-talking mother. There are Coltrane and Nina Simone ballads to underline the elegance of our kind protagonists, but the dirgelike soundtrack largely suggests nostalgia and resignation. The most shocking thing about Baldwin’s original story is that it could have been updated to the noisy present without changing a single element. For some reason, however, Jenkins freezes everything in amber, and the blind man never sings.