After the echo-chambered shitstorm that was the #Oscarssowhite scandal, it would have almost been a miracle if Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a throbbing, emotional howl tracing the life of a poor, gay black man didn’t take home the Best Picture. Moonlight took home the statuette, (though not before a further shitstorm where La La Land was accidentally awarded it), not just just providing the academy with some much needed artistic credibility, but is also one of the best films of a year that’s already been frontloaded with some extraordinary cinema.
In the immediate post-Boyhood landscape, it was hard to imagine that a director would attempt to step-on Richard Linklanter’s time-lapsed toes with a film that followed such a similar coming of age arc for at least a couple of years. But Moonlight’s beautiful and sensitive approach manages to do effortlessly with three distinct actors what Boyhood pulled off with one; the three actors who portray main character Chiron at different stages of his life might not look the same but their performances lock together like a flipbook: any missing pieces would bring the whole portrait crashing down.
Chiron is the son of a crack addict mother (an unrecognisable Naomi Harris, who amazing shot all of her scenes in under a week whilst she was playing Moneypenny in Spectre) growing up in the avid night-blue wastelands that lurk behind the glitz of the Miami strip. Jenkins, returning to feature filmmaking some seven years after Medicine For Melancholy, adapted the script from a short, autobiographical stage play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, rearranging its nonlinear plot into three distinct chapters. Both he and the play’s author, Tarell Alvin McCraney, grew up in the Liberty City housing projects, where Moonlight is set, their shared background seems crucial to the film’s vital specificity.
Moonlight is obsessed with cycles, even from it’s opening shot where a camera obsessively swings around a car on a street corner. Cycles of crime, drugs, poverty envelop Chiron like the links of a chain, whilst Moonlight may be an intensely personal story, it’s concerns are perennial. As the film begins the primary relationship we see Chiron build is with Juan (Mahershala Ali), the drug dealer who discovers young Chiron (Hibert) hiding in a vacant building and starts looking after the boy. A viewer might doubt the man’s motives (is he grooming another kid for the corner?) were it not for the great paternal warmth Ali conveys, especially during the deeply moving scene where Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe) talk to Chiron, with honesty and without judgment, about his sexuality.
The question of what it really means to be a man hangs over Moonlight, and Jenkins gets into the expectations put on boys (and that boys put on each other) to act, talk, and feel a certain way, to always fight and to never cry. The film jumps, in its second chapter, into the social battleground of high school, where Chiron (now Sanders, playing a chronically self-conscious teen) weathers harassment from his peers, who can tell he’s different from them. But he also gets closer with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), introduced as a young boy in the previous segment, and the film shows how their bond, a friendship teetering on the edge of something more, is both defined and threatened by what they’ve been taught about masculinity.
By the third chapter Chiron has developed into a fearsomely muscular young man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Juan and that blurring of character proves key to the film’s final act. Moonlight reaches for big insights on identity, race, culture, and sexuality, but never at the expense of the small, heartrending character study at its centre. Jenkins has done more than just expand and rearrange his source material; he also gives it an urgent cinematic rhythm, a heartbeat.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running Time: 111 minutes