Stars: Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Opening Date: Friday October 21, 2016
By Jerry Nadarajah
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is one of the best films of 2016. It tells the story of a young Miami man named Chiron, who is portrayed, over about 20 years, by three different actors. Based on an unproduced, semi-autobiographical stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is an intensely personal film. Jenkins rearranges McCraney’s nonlinear narrative into three distinct chapters in the life of Chiron (played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert, as an adolescent by Ashton Sanders, and a grown man by Trevante Rhodes).
We first encounter Chiron running away from a bunch of other kids who want to beat him up. He is smaller than most of them – they call him ‘Little’ (which is the name of this chapter). He is different in ways he doesn’t fully understand. They suspect that he might be gay. His mother, Paula (Naomi Harris, riveting) tumbles from infrequent drug user to full-on junkie – she knows why he is bullied. Paula and Chiron live in a housing project. Juan (Mahershala Ali, fantastic) controls the drug traffic in the neighborhood and ends up becoming a father figure to Chiron. Juan lives with his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) – their home becomes a place of refuge for Chiron. But, we know that Juan is the root of Paula’s pain. There is a heartbreaking scene where Chiron asks Juan some really tough questions: “My mama does drugs?” “And you sell the drugs?” “What’s a faggot?”
In the film’s second chapter, ‘Chiron’, our central character is an awkward teenager coming to terms with his sexual orientation, dealing with more intense bullying, and trying to figure out his place in the world. His boyhood friend Kevin (who grows from Jaden Piner to Jharrel Jerome) is the source of his most beautiful memory and his most painful.
We see how Chiron responds to all of this in the film’s final section, ‘Black’. He’s in his late 20s, stoic and muscular – he has built armor around himself after what he has endured. We get a sense of the long-lasting effects of Chiron’s lifelong search for love, acceptance, and understanding. An unexpected phone call from Kevin (now embodied by Andre Holland) reconnects these two men after a decade. A prolonged, nearly real-time conversation between these two at a diner where Kevin works as a cook is one of the film’s most powerful scenes.
Though the narrative is structurally episodic, it doesn’t feel that way because Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter. You’ll notice uniformity in the body language, verbal tics and downcast gazes. It’s easy to believe we’re seeing the same person throughout.
I noticed the complete absence of white people in Moonlight. In its specificity, it deals with universal themes about masculinity, identity, race, culture, sexuality, and family. But, this story needed to be told this way. Chiron faces oppression from black adversaries, not white people. Jenkins doesn’t present black kids beating each other up to abdicate black masculinity. It’s there so we learn to accept the reality of what it is like to be black, gay, poor, and mostly friendless.
Moonlight is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen – both in terms of its visual style and in the power of its story. You feel the humidity of the afternoon sunshine. The water and the beach around it feel like an escape from the harsh realities of the real world. The restless camerawork, the vibrant and vivid colors, and the distinctive soundtrack (hip hop, R&B, classical, Nicholas Britell’s subtly emotive score) all combine to give the movie atmosphere.
In terms of structure and tone, there is a naturalism that brings to mind Richard Linklater’s gentle masterwork Boyhood. Neither film is driven by the mechanics of plot. Instead, they channel the flow of real life. Both films present the idea that there are moments, big and small, that define who we are and that we are shaped most by the people in our lives.
Moonlight isn’t the big, loud, melodramatic experience some viewers may be expecting it to be. It’s a quiet, understated, and intimate film. And then all of a sudden, bam! It sneaks up on you and you find yourself either fighting tears or releasing them. In this regard, it’s similar to Manchester by the Sea, another 2016 favourite opening November 25th.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took a lot of heat earlier this year for its lack of diversity amongst the nominees. Moonlight doesn’t have the scale that Academy nominators tend to favour, but it’s exactly the kind of film they should be recognizing more often. I suspect this will be the year they get it right. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali – I’d say he’s currently the frontrunner in this category), and Best Screenplay. Moonlight isn’t a movie we just see. We feel it. Our heart rate rises and falls as we watch it. And it’s a movie that stays in our minds long after the end credits have rolled.