Director Barry Jenkins/2016
Barry Jenkins delivers a beautiful, warm, and difficult story of one boy’s journey to adulthood. This journey is not for the faint hearted, however, as it breaks several stereotypes and expectations along the way.
Jenkins wrote the screenplay based on Tarell McCraney’s play “In moonlight black boys look blue“. Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Miami, Florida and the film reflects the authentic flavors of the Miami culture, where the story is based. Jenkins made sure he shot in locations in which he grew up around to make it more of a personal project for himself. The parts of the film that are not autobiographical for Jenkins reflect the story elements contained in McCraney’s play.
Moonlight is divided into three parts. Each party is distinct, yet contributes to the broader narrative of the life of a young boy name Chiron as he grows up. Each part of the film also uses different colors and hues from the other parts in order to create different tonal qualities that complement the narrative. Much Oscar talk has surrounded the film since its earliest screenings, and given its visual depth, in addition to its narrative, it’s easy to see why it is an early favorite.
Part one of the film is entitled “Little“. It focuses on Chiron (Alex Hibbert) when he is an elementary school age boy running as fast as he can away from school bullies. He holes up inside a boarded up apartment used by junkies to shoot up. There, encounters Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him to get a bite to eat and provides him a place to sleep for the night. Chiron, who goes by the name “Little”, doesn’t have much to say, but you can tell there’s a whole lot going through his mind.
Over time “Little” opens up to both Juan and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) when they open up their home as a refuge for “Little” as he tries to avoid his own home where his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) struggles with drug addiction, and a constant stream of different men. Part 1 ends with a heartbreaking conversation that reveals Juan’s relationship to Paula and the realization that “Little” might be perceiving his mother’s rage toward him, and the reason for the bullying he is enduring, as stemming from the fact that he might be homosexual. Not understanding sexuality at such a young age, “Little” internalizes his struggle without the understanding of what any of it means.
Part 2 is called “Chiron” and picks up years later as Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now in High School. The bullying has intensified as his sexuality and quiet nature clash with the students in this tough neighborhood who don’t value anyone they see as “soft”. Chiron finds hope and heartache with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
Moonlight might not be the most accessible film of the year, but it is without a doubt one of the most important stories we will see.
The events that transpire in Part 2 lead to Chiron being sent up to Atlanta, Georgia before heading to the final act titled “Black“, which was Kevin’s nickname for Chiron. This act finds Chiron (Tevante Rhodes) as a streetwise drug dealer in Atlanta trying to remake himself into an adult that looks different physically from the weak child he saw himself as while growing up in Miami. His heart, however, is still that of the same fearful kid struggling and searching for an identity and skin that he truly feels comfortable living in. It is in this act that all of the events of Chiron’s life come crashing together as Chiron must face the advice Juan had given him so long ago…that only you can choose who you are going to be in this world.
Moonlight is well-crafted Oscar bait, and I mean that as a complement. After a couple of years of enduring the #OscarSoWhite discussions on Twitter, this film seeks to rectify the imbalance in ways that even films like The Birth of a Nation are unable to. For one, Moonlight has practically no white actors. Instead, the audience is immersed into a story that fully, and authentically, conveys a “black” experience, without trying to counterbalance its voice. This means that many will see themselves in a story that they can recognize fully, while others will be given the opportunity to empathize with an experience, that they might not fully understand.
If ever there is to be healing in our culture, that has seen its fair share of race-related conflict in the last couple of years, it is a story like this that doesn’t seek to provide balance, but simply seeks to be authentic to the experiences of the main character. For those who might recognize themselves in this story, the added dimension of Chiron’s struggle with his sexual identity is another layer that may cause discomfort, but again provides an avenue for extending compassion for those who might not grasp this type of struggle. This is not always an easy film to experience, but it is a worthy journey to take.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood might be the best comparison of Moonlight in terms of the freeform narrative that exists in the story. The film is less about arriving at a certain destination as much as it is simply unfolding before Chiron with all of the uncertainty that all of us experience in our own lives. He, like us in our own lives, is simply reacting to what is happening all around him, and to him, and doing his best to simply survive with his identity and self-worth intact.
Boyhood, chronicled 12 years of a young boy’s life, watching the same actors age on screen as the film was shot in real-time over those 12 years. Here, we are just given 3 glimpses of this boy’s life at different periods of time with 3 different actors playing Chiron at 3 different ages. The cast of Moonlight is fantastic and is able to seamlessly connect these vignettes of Chiron’s life together. This story is a testament to Barry Jenkins abilities as a director, and his unique artistic vision. Moonlight might not be the most accessible film of the year, but it is without a doubt one of the most important stories we will see.