Directed by: Barry Jenkins.
Written by: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), Trevante Rhodes (Black), Mahershala Ali (Juan), Naomie Harris (Paula), Janelle Monáe (Teresa), André Holland (Kevin), Jharrel Jerome (Kevin - 16), Jaden Piner (Kevin - 9), Patrick Decile (Terrel).
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is going to be one of the most “thinkpiece-ed” films of 2016 – and with good reason, as the film has a lot to say about issues that are at the forefront of our culture in 2016. The film deals with masculinity – and how our culture shapes that, forcing men to take on roles they didn’t really want, and become people who they are not, in order to fit the culture around them. Specifically, it deals with black masculinity – and, like many all great movies, it is rooted in the specific details of its leading characters life – the universal comes from the specific. It is a film about sexuality – again, specifically black, male sexuality, something that as a culture, we rarely discuss. It is a film that is relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, as it humanizes what so much media demonizes, as well as a rebuke of last year’s Oscars So White, as it has lots of amazing work done by African Americans, and has become an Oscar frontrunner in these early days. All of this is true – and it is important. But I want to make something clear about Moonlight – it is a brilliant film first and foremost – an amazingly told, intimate story with some of the best writing, directing, acting and filmmaking you will see this year. Moonlight is an important film – all the more so because it is a great film as well.
The story centers on one young, black man growing up in the projects of Miami in the late-1980s, and then at roughly 10 year intervals from there, at three specific times and places. When we first meet him, his nickname is Little (played by Alex R. Hibbert) – and he is painfully shy and quiet, picked on by the other boys for being different, although he doesn’t quite understand how he’s different. His father is not in the picture, and his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is trying – but she’s also addicted to crack, and that takes precedence in her life. Little meets Juan (Mahershala Ali) – a drug dealer, and Juan takes him under his wing – not as his business apprentice, but as a father figure. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) become two of the only people who care about Little – and the people he opens up – in a heartbreaking scene, he asks them what the word “faggot” means, and if he is one. Eventually, we flash forward to Little in high school – he now goes by his actual name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and he is still incredibly quiet, still picked on by the other kids in his school, and is still dealing with his mother, whose addiction has only grown stronger. He knows about his sexuality now – but will hardly admit to himself, let alone anyone else – his anger rising in him. He does have a connection with another boy Kevin (Jharrel Jerome)- who is brash and overcompensating. Things happen – then we flash forward again. Chiron is now a drug dealer himself – he goes by Black, he’s left Miami, and becomes the kind of muscle-bound, grill wearing cliché we picture drug dealers to be. He gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland) – who he hasn’t seen in years – and heads back down to Miami to see him.
In between each section, we immediately sense that a lot has happened to Chiron – who has is forced to grow up each time – become someone else, suppress who he is. The one common thing he maintains through each segment is that is painfully quiet – while Chiron is at the center of every scene in the movie, he may have less dialogue than other characters – like Juan, Teresa, Paula or Kevin – who only show up for parts of each segment (and in some cases, only one or two of the segments themselves). The three actors who play him do a remarkable job – so much of the movie happens on their face, even though Chiron is a mostly passive character, he takes in everything around him. The other actors in the film do a great job as well. Ali, best known (to me) as Remy from House of Cards, makes a human character out his drug dealer Juan – opening up to Little in ways he doesn’t with most people (as it would show weakness) – and giving him great advice. Naomie Harris – who has quietly been doing great work since 28 Days Later (2002) gives a wonderful performance as Paula – the crack addicted mother, who loves her son, but is powerless to control her addiction.
As a director, this is only Jenkins’ second film – following Medicine for Melancholy (2008) – but he has confidence in his abilities, and makes a fascinating, visually striking film. Yes, the film takes place in the mostly poor areas of Miami – but Jenkins and company finds beauty there as well, particularly when the characters visit the beach and the ocean – a place that seems to free them to be themselves, in a way they cannot be when they are confined to the hot interior spaces of the rest of the movie. Jenkins doesn’t feel the need to underline much of what happens – as is too often the case in films – he is confident that you’ll pick up the visual cues throughout the film.
Moonlight is an important film for all the reasons, and more, that were mentioned at the top of the review. It certainly does provide us with a sympathetic, human glimpse into the world of one, conflicted, poor, black, gay character in a way that few films have dared do before. But it is a great film not because of what it’s about, but instead because of the way it goes about it – it is a heartbreaking film – that doesn’t solve all the problems of its main character by the end, but points in a more hopeful direction. It is one of the year’s best films so far.