Year: 2016 (U.K Theatrical Release 2017)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenplay: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali.
Synopsis is here:
It’s been almost a week since I came out of a mid-afternoon screening of Barry Jenkins second feature length film Moonlight. Despite the rave reviews and its surprise Oscar win, I knew little about the film itself. As a massive fan of Jenkins quietly touching debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), I kept myself away from anything that delved too much into the actual film. Now, a few hours since my viewing of the film, I can honestly say I was astonished. In the same way that many wouldn’t believe they would see a Black U.S president in their lifetime, I never would have believed that an unapologetically black art film would win Best Picture. But here we are.
Of course, we can talk about the embarrassing Oscar mix up that occurred. In which Oscar favourite; La La Land (2016) was announced as the winner of the award before notification of the mix-up was discovered. The fallout from the error once again highlighted some of the many problems that many find with the Academy. However, this doesn’t take away from what this film as achieved. When something as elliptical as Moonlight wins Best Picture, it can chip away at our expectations about the Oscars. While you can say that the film’s theme of homosexuality seems to fit into the so-called “worthy” agenda of the awards, almost everything else does not. From its near abstract structure, down to the small production company who made the film. What the win did for cynics such as myself, is suggest the alterations of academy voting members may not just change who may win what at the Oscars, it may affect artistic taste. The beauty of Moonlight is in the respect it gives its audience. It is not heavy on dialogue and its plot is streamlined, yet the execution of its story, which seems to owe more to the mood driven world cinema of the likes of Wong Kar Wai, along with the films cultural relevancy is what makes the film stand out.
In some ways, Moonlight is similar to Jenkins debut feature. As with Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight navigates ideas of black identity and relationships and the need for connection in a world in which many elements seek to isolate. In Medicine, the conflict lies within the class struggle, gentrification and interracial dating. It debates that there is still a struggle between race and class when it comes to love and despite our wish to ignore such arguments, a division is still created from outside judgement and long-standing resentment. In Moonlight the conflict at first appears more insular. It details the interior identity crisis of a young black man at three pivotal moments of his life. Sexuality is explored, along with the complex emotions that come through with the character’s age and the fraught relationships of youth. Moonlight also factors a socio-political element which, if isolated, would seem well worn on the surface, but due to its setting and characters, brings forth a fresh angle towards its subject. A young man’s search for his sexual identity is often used subject matter in cinema and in that sense Moonlight is no different. However, the film’s predominant setting of Liberty City, Miami speaks volumes. This is a lower-class area with African-Americans making up 95% of the demographic. The waspish comments that have emitted from white commentators such as Camilla Long only help illustrate that complex queer cinema has long been a Caucasian exercise. The complicated affections that take place in the likes of Carol (2015) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) appeared to be accepted far more readily. Here with Moonlight, questions of universal appeal quickly rose their heads. Whether subconsciously or not, this does not come as a big surprise. However, much like Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins’ main weapon in his armoury is his capability to infuse his characters with earnestness and vulnerability. There is a tenderness between these characters here that is not often seen within films that deal with Black masculinity, if at all. Apologies for being glib here, but it’s not a shock that the film's emotions may be lost on certain writers and viewers. Black masculinity has so narrowly defined for so long in cinema, you can almost forgive people for black characters for not acting in the way that they expect. For some black audience members for which this film’s warm, emotive response will connect to, we now expect this so much in our real lives, we should merely roll our eyes and move on.
The characters and dynamics at play in Moonlight defy so much of what is often suggested in other areas of black culture. In particular Rap and Hip Hop music, which has been long dominated with allegations and allegories of homophobia and toxic masculinity for nearly thirty years. The film does slightly lean towards the ghetto escapism that defined the Afro-American cinema of the 90’s, but it also toys with our expectations. For instance, Mahershala Ali portrayal of the drug dealer with the heart of gold is shifted into a new perspective when in conversation with a young 9-year-old boy about the word “faggot”. A near unrecognisable Naomi Harris takes on a role of a drug-addicted mother, delicately balancing the performance between despicableness and heart-wrenching empathy. It could have been easy to shoehorn this portrayal with previously seen roles such as Mo'nique’s villainess display in Precious (2009). But Jenkins understands that humans aren’t that straightforward. What we see throughout with every character is the knottiness that comes with their decisions and the tumultuous results which stem from their history.
Like Boyhood (2012), Moonlight notes upon the small details rather than the larger ones. We are given intimate moments which help define the young protagonist; Chiron, but the film decides against highlighting certain outcomes. Characters fade into the distance, but they’ve made their mark. This is a film of looks, not dialogue. Lines are read on the character’s faces. This is where the depth of the film is found. On the surface, we think we know the story, yet this is a tale differs from what we think we know. The moments Moonlight declines to show us, an off-screen demise, for example, doesn’t need to be shown. The audience has seen in many guises before.
The likes of Camilla Long will state that the film as a whole has been told on countless backdrops. But no. Take away the likes of Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012), the work of Charles Burnett, or at a push, Six Degrees of Seperation (1993) and the canvas is nearly always white. Often of a social class higher than seen here. It’s one imitate love scene holds a tenderness that has not been held on a mainstream screen by two Afro-American black men. It displays a tenderness with a poignancy that even Todd Haynes Carol (2015) doesn’t reach. It’s a moment which truly suggests that we now comfortable with queer sex which is not out to titillate or to shock. It is one thing to dislike a film for an honest reason but is slightly troubling to dismiss film in the way the likes of Long does, asking a mood piece to have more plot. To rebuff the film as something that doesn’t break any new ground as if films like this are a dime a dozen. How often do we see films as personal as this? With African Americans framed with such tenderness? Long’s banal comments are a smart way to try and take away a marginalised voice, but while Moonlight may not be a universal and easy expression for more conservative ears it’s certainly one that needed to be told.
It’s difficult to produce a coming of age film which is so nakedly honest. It’s harder to do so with three different actors inhabiting the same role. Even Boyhood kept hold of its child actors for all of its 12 years of production. The performances that come from the three lead roles are not only uniformly consistent but they also all highlight the fragility that can lie within black male masculinity. It’s difficult to pick out the strongest dramatic moment. It could be the subtle and heart-breaking exchange that occurs between Alex Hibbert’s 9-year-old Chiron and Mahershala Ali’s Juan. It could the soft romantic moment on the beach between a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). One part of me believes that films final scenes between and adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) are the most deserving, yet to say that seems unfair on everything that we’ve seen before it. What I can honestly say is each display is deeply compelling.
The three performances, when combined, create a complex and wrenching portrait of longing and regret I can honestly say that I have not seen in an American movie lead by people of colour before. Such a statement is hyperbolic, but one I say with a similar earnestness that this deeply expressive piece of art provides. It will not surprise me if the film’s Oscar win will disarm those who will now try and see what the fuss is about. Moonlight is a film which is not interested in easy answers and comforting closure. It’s a film which requires meditation. This is a film which is not only unapologetically black but also a film that is not universal with its emotions. Nor is it ever trying to be. It’s a film which belongs in the same realms as George Washington (2000), This is England (2006) and Ratcatcher (1999). Coming of age films from the skewed side of the tracks which still maintain the ability to sense the sweet within the sour. In a film world, which appears to be falling into the trap of homogeneity, Moonlight’s beautifully abstract and visually poetic rhythms are a timely reminder of just how bewitching the seventh art can be. I await Barry Jenkins next feature with baited breath. His Oscar win suggests I may not have to wait almost a decade for it this time.