So let’s get this out if the way…Moonlight is a wonderful film for numerous wonderful reasons.
Let me tell you why it’s not wonderful though. Moonlight is NOT wonderful because so many of the best known critics from top dailies and websites say its so, and it’s not wonderful because of all the buzz about it being an Academy Award contender. All this can be crucial toward the success of a film in our media over-saturated society, but it should never be what totally compels you to see a film.
Society shouldn’t pressure you for PC reasons either. Moonlight is about the troubled life of Chiron, a gay Black man, whose story begins at 9 years old, transitions to his mid-teens, and rounds out in his mid-twenties. Presenting Chiron’s difficult life is the been-brilliant director Barry Jenkins, from whom fans (and fanatics) have been clamoring for a second feature film since his 2008 indie (and once again, critical) hit, especially among Black cineastes, Medicine for Melancholy. Now, society is pressuring 9-year old Chiron, who everyone calls “Little” because of his short and wiry stature, to be more of a man instead of so wimpy (aka, gay). Little is continuously disregarded, teased, go down the line. What makes them perceive him as gay is never made obvious, which is good for storytelling reasons, but he seems to know he is different from his peers as well.
That all said, he is hated by so many of them but finds camaraderie, and his greatest influence, in father figure Juan, and sensitive drug dealer (a description begging for Oscar bait, only thing missing is “with a heart of gold”) played by Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, The 4440). Even he has picked up on young Chiron’s homosexuality, and whether he may have those questions about himself may be in question as well, but regardless he is motivated to take the po’ disregarded child under his care, along with stalwart girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, who I unfortunately never saw as a character in the film, just as Janelle Monae except not dancing or singing to our delight. Nonetheless, Juan provides a respite (and food..a lot of food) away from Little’s drug addicted mother, played scarily and convincingly by the always affable Naomie Harris.
Harris’ character Paula is indeed so haunting, she may not want you to see this film. She’s basically one-step below Mo’nique in Precious. Here, Moonlight toes the line on falling into another “Black pain drama,” regardless of whether the story stems from real life or not. Unfortunately, the media tends to ‘get off’ on seeing and promoting Black trauma, the pains of Black society living in the dregs and being hateful to one another. While Black folks don’t hold the aren’t the sole bearers on suffering, we seem to hold a Master’s degree on it, especially if you only pay attention to what’s mostly promoted through a white media lens, which most of American and world society tends to get its news.
That all said, though this aberrant behavior that carries through past Paula, and the boys who prey on Chiron through teenagedom, makes an uncomfortable watch, as I put myself through the gaze of a non-woke critic, the mostly united critical trumping of this film should not stop you from seeing this film.
What should make you see it, even more than James Laxton’s breath-taking Miami cinematography (filmed not in stereotypical South Beach, but real Miami streets) and even more than the all too rare opportunity to see the underrated Andre Holland of television’s The Knick, act his *bleep* off by saying more with his eyes and body language than he does with dialogue (and he has a decent amount of lines) are these key things:
- Barry Jenkins is the man. By that, I mean he is sensitive enough to speak for men, gay or otherwise, trying to find their place in the world. It seems like a lot of films are made about Black men, but most are unable to show vulnerability -in a humanistic more than in a way strictly dealing with homosexulaity – both artistically and accessibly to everyday filmgoers.
- Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron is like a chameleon. Its easy for him to blend into the background, if it just wasn’t for those piercing eyes. The young actor, who lives through the most violent encounter in the film, plays Chiron like a balloon fill of nervousness (for all the right reasons) that’s about to pop. Teenage years are the worst, and Sanders went full method to dredge up the worst of it. Young brother makes you forget this is not a documentary.
- Alex Hibbert as pre-teen Chiron is the lost puppy of all three Chiron’s, difference being that even though he has no idea what it means to be a homosexual, he’s well aware of everything else going on his world. Sadly, too aware. Its his father-son relationship between Little and Juan that first emotional gravity of the film.
- As awesome as the both younger Chiron’s are, Trevante Rhodes is simply stellar. An imposing figure, now more like his substitute daddy Juan than the sensitive kid everyone forced him to grow out of, his on-screen presence is the best of pure blackness: strong, sexy, and beguiling. His reunion with childhood friend Kevin, as played by Andre Holland, provides an on-screen connection so visceral, yet so shrouded in shame, that you’re left on the edge of your seat. But there’s more to this…
What makes Moonlight even more relevant than providing a space for Black men, gay and straight, to be vulnerable on screen, is that Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell McCraney, whose story and play this based on, tell a deep story on how, again, the greater society weighs on who you think you should be. Here it’s not just the media, but also lack of economic opportunities that lead to the prison industrial complex defining Black American life. This is real stuff happening in salient ways that so many of us are so used to, things that, of course, reinforce the idea that the Black man is naturally dangerous.
Concurrently, Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th has opened the New York Film Festival touching on these very themes. To watch these films practically together at NYFF will inform you to levels some may not be ready for. But get ready, cause these great films are here, and you need to experience them.
Check out the trailer for Moonlight here.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
USA, 2016, 110 min.
Series: MAIN SLATE
Screenings and Venues: