This review contains minor spoilers. [This review was originally published elsewhere on March 6, 2017]
When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight many months ago last year I became entirely obsessed with it and desperately wanted to see the film. Throughout the months leading up to the UK release of the film I kept rewatching the trailer, it captivated me so much and I just knew the film would be unlike anything I had ever seen before. So when I first saw Moonlight three weeks ago I had very high expectations but I was at ease the moment the film began with Boris Gardiner’s 1973 reggae classic “Every Nigger is a Star”, also sampled on “Wesley’s Theory”, the opening track to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. By the time the credits started rolling I was overwhelmed with emotions, my heart was beating very fast; it was the best cinematic experience I’ve ever had and will likely ever have. I was lucky enough to attend a Q & A after the film with some of the cast and crew, Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, Adele Romanski and James Laxton. I was grateful and in total awe of the talent that made such an artistic masterpiece.
This review comes three weeks after seeing the film because I’ve needed time to gather my thoughts on the film though I love it there’s a lot to talk about and there are many things I’m still trying to unpack. I have now seen Moonlight a second time and on a second viewing it was just as emotionally impactful as the first. This review also comes a full week after Moonlight won three Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture which it absolutely deserves. The press has already extensively covered the snafu which occurred just a week ago so I won’t go into it but the controversy surrounding the false announcement of La La Land as the winner before correctly giving the award to Moonlight has a particular resonance. Moonlight’s historic win is so important, it’s the first all-black cast and LGBT film to win Best Picture and the lowest budget film to win the award. It’s an incredible feat and I really hope its win is not overshadowed by the biggest mistake in the Academy’s history but hey we black people are used to having our struggles ignored and our victories undermined.
Moonlight is only the second feature film from 37 year-old director, Barry Jenkins. His first feature film was the delightful mumblecore romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (2008) which was like a black Before Sunrise about two young black San Franciscans after a one night stand. It was a very small indie film made on a budget $15,000 practically peanuts compared to Moonlight’s still tiny $1.5 million. While it was a solid debut, it was still surprising that Jenkins could make a film like Moonlight 8 years later. It’s the kind of film that many will never achieve in their entire careers, it’s the film of a lifetime. Moonlight was adapted by Jenkins from a previously unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney’s play is a largely autobiographical story about a young black boy named Chiron growing up in Liberty City, Miami as he struggles with his sexuality and his identity. Although straight, Jenkins also grew up in the same neighbourhood as McCraney, went to the some of the same schools and also had a crack-addicted mother though the two never met growing up. It is told co-currently in three stages of his life: as a small pre-pubescent boy, as a lanky teenager and finally as a hyper-masculine young adult. Jenkins’ screenplay changes the complicated structure of the play to translate it to film instead using a triptych structure, the narrative is told in three chapters named after the nicknames Chiron is given at different times in his life: “i. Little”, “ii. Chiron” and “iii. Black.” Drawing influence from foreign directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien whose film Three Times was an influence on the narrative structure, Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai, Moonlight is an art film. As a lover of cinema and especially art cinema I was delighted to hear Barry Jenkins mention these filmmakers as influences especially Wong Kar-wai. There isn’t a whole lot of black cinema and black art films are even rarer so I was so happy to see another.
Moonlight also looks like an art film. The film opens with Afro-Cuban drug dealer, Juan (played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali who won best supporting actor for the role), pulling up in a classic late 80s Chevrolet. He is sporting a durag, gold watch and casual attire. At 6′ 2″ and with a deep smooth voice, Ali is a commanding screen presence. Laxton’s camera circles a drug addict and corner boy Juan approaches, constantly in motion it’s somewhat disorientating. The film is shot in CinemaScope and colour graded with a high contrast giving it a sharp distinct look different from the documentary-style look typical of social realist dramas. Running past Juan is a Chiron (Alex Hibbert) chased by bullies who yell homophobic slurs at him. The camera cuts to Chiron running through a field, the contrast of his dark brown skin, blue backpack and green grass is vivid as he runs from the bullies to hide in an abandoned corner. Despite its sensitive subject matter, Moonlight is not a social realist drama nor is it intended to be. It is a beautifully poetic meditation on identity and self-love. On paper, it appears it could be social realist drama, it’s set in a poor neighbourhood, there’s a drug dealer, a cracked addicted mother, an absent father and a bullied young black boy. But as Barry Jenkins has said stereotypes come from the outside so these are not stereotypes these are just people who really exist and are just as human and deserving to have their stories told truthfully. Moonlight doesn’t fetishise the struggle of living poor, black or gay it simply tells a personal but very relatable story. And because Moonlight is so gorgeously shot does not make it any less realistic in fact it makes it more realistic because it depicts the true beauty of the location and the people. Set and shot in Liberty City, Miami it’s an area of Miami which is not often depicted on screen but Moonlight shows how naturally beautiful the location is despite the struggle people live in.
One of the most breath-taking scenes in the film is where Juan takes Chiron swimming. It is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. Nicholas Brittel’s classical score is incredibly moving, James Laxton’s camera bobs in the water in a close-up of Chiron swimming. Juan holds Chiron head just above the water symbolising a baptism. This scene is particularly poignant because of the stereotype of black people not being able to swim. This is some truth to this stereotype, 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. There is a long history behind it, African slaves were brought over on slave ships and many, many drowned so naturally there is an instinctive fear of drowning passed down through generations. Water represents so much in fiction: escape, freedom, sustenance, spirit. It is incredibly touching to see two beautiful black bodies being free in the water as Juan says “in the middle of the world.” After swimming, Juan talks honestly to Chiron and the dialogue is so incredibly well written that it’s some of the most uplifting lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s also the central message of the film as Juan says “at some point you gotta to decide for yourself who you want to be.” Although the film explores Chiron trying to understand his sexuality it’s more about Chiron trying to figure out who he is and tragically it’s not until the end of the film after he has radically transformed himself in the image of Juan that he begins to learn who he is. Juan is a father figure to Chiron whose real father is absent and Juan’s presence is missed when he disappears after the first chapter. Mahershala Ali’s performance is so subtle but incredibly powerful I felt so much love for a drug dealer because he wasn’t a stereotype he was a complex human character with emotions.
The second chapter follows an older Chiron (played with nervous energy by Ashton Sanders), as a lanky, awkward teenager. Ashton Sanders’ performance is perhaps the best of the three actors who play Chiron. The way he carries his body is so fragile and guarded, his shoulders are constantly hunched. It’s in this second act that we see Chiron’s relationship with his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) develop. Kevin appears to be comfortable with his sexuality and know who he is and in some ways he is further along his journey of self-discovery than Chiron but he doesn’t fully know who he is either. This all comes to a head in a pivotal scene. Chiron goes to the beach, sitting on the sand he feels the cool night breeze on his body. When Kevin comes to join him, they talk to each other and smoke a blunt. The dialogue is so natural and well written that it feels like a conversation taken directly from real life. A particular line however hits me hard, Chiron says “I cry so much sometimes I feel like imma just turn to drops.” I would call myself a sensitive person and as a teenager sometimes I felt so lonely I would just cry. To see black boys say this on screen is important because a new generation of black boys growing up can see that it’s okay to cry and be sensitive and express your emotions. Frank Ocean released an album last year called Blonde accompanied by a magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry, that phrase is something that has been said to all men of different races and backgrounds. However with black men in particular, it holds so much weight because we are expected to be hyper-masculine but at the same time we can’t be too intimidating or we’re seen as a threat to society. Although they had nothing to do with each other (though Barry Jenkins was listening to a chopped and screwed version of Blonde while writing it) Moonlight and Blonde explores similar topics such as black masculinity and identity and it’s no surprise a line in a song on Blonde goes “pretty fucking, underneath moonlight now.” I felt happy to see Chiron and Kevin share an intimate moment and allow themselves to be vulnerable because black men aren’t often allowed to be.
The final chapter shows who the world has forced the Chiron to become. Played with a quiet melancholy by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron has built himself in the image of Juan, his armour is his physically strong body, he wears gold fronts on his teeth and carries himself in what he thinks he has to be not who he really is. So when we see Chiron receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) we see who he really is. Kevin reminds him of his past which he has tried to forget but can never truly forget because it’s part of who he is. When Chiron meets up with Kevin at the restaurant he works at, we see the two men struggling to say what they really want to say or how they really feel. Kevin cooks a chef’s special for Chiron and it’s shot with so much love and care. The dialogue as the two men enjoy each other’s company is delightful, you can feel the onscreen chemistry between the actors. When they’re in the car on their way back to Kevin’s place, Kevin asks Chiron “who is you?” This question is the central message of the film to ask ourselves who we really are and to love ourselves. Chiron deflects the question by turning up the car speakers blasting a beautiful chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man.” Chiron doesn’t know who he is yet. In the quiet final moments of the film, two black men drink tea together. That’s something that’s never been seen before on screen but needs to be seen. Chiron admits that Kevin is the only man that’s ever touched him not just that but the only person. This lines hit hard because it shows how Chiron has not allowed himself to be loved. But there’s hope, in the final scene we see Chiron held by Kevin, he’s finally allowing himself to be loved and we should all do the same.