Review – Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland

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Queer cinema has for a long time existed on the peripheries of the mainstream, in the independent and arthouse sectors, catering to what was seen as a niche audience. In recent times we have started to see this change and Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is an important stepping stone in that process. While Jenkins is not himself gay, his film, which is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, has a sense of authenticity to it. It feels true to itself and its protagonist, and this year became the first LGBTQI themed film to be awarded Best Picture by the Academy. Attempting to describe Moonlight requires lots of in- words. It is intimate. It is internal. It is introspective. It is introverted. It is also extraordinary.

Moonlight tells the story of a young African-American man growing up in Miami, discovering and coming to terms with his sexuality. It is a character study delivered in three distinct parts, with each of the parts focusing on a different stage in his young life and taking its title from the name the character goes by at that stage. Chapter one, “Little,” introduces us to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a young boy of ten who lives with his drug addicted single mother, Paula (Naomi Harris). He is teased and tormented by the children in his neighbourhood because they think he is different. He is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monae) who become the idealised, supportive family he lacks at home. In the second chapter, “Chiron,” we find him (Ashton Sanders) in late high school, with all of the usual uncertainty and insecurity that comes with being that age compounded by an increasing awareness that his desires don’t seem to be the same as those around him. The final section, “Black,” takes us forward ten years, showing us a drastically different Chiron, who has embraced a disguise of performative masculinity in order to conceal his true self. Chiron here encounters an important old friend, Kevin (Andre Holland), for the first time since high school.

To call Moonlight a coming-of-age story belies the complexity of this exploration of African American masculinity and adolescent homosexuality. The coming-of-age movie has quite a well worn formula and recognisable beats which Jenkins, directing only his second feature film, makes a point of circumventing. In particular, for a film about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, Jenkins and McCraney avoid the temptation to over-sexualise the story. There is only one moment of sexual awakening in the film, a very intimate scene that is a beautifully executed. The three actors who play Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – could hardly look less similar. However this visual difference adds to the idea that while this is the same person we are watching in each section it is a different manifestation of that person. While retaining that central vulnerability, each of the actors succeeds in bring something distinct to the character – innocence, uncertainty, denial. What Moonlight leaves us with is the awareness that identity is a process. The Chiron we see at the end of the film is not a finished product and he may well never be.

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Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaching Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim

Barry Jenkins and his team have fashioned a film which has a visual beauty that is not common for social realist drama. The toughness of Chiron’s life is not reflected in the usual stylistic markers of gritty authenticity like shaky, handheld cinematography and muted colour palettes. Instead, cinematographer James Laxton crafts evocative images and smooth camera moves which, along with composer Nicholas Britell’s classically influenced score, brings an entirely different tone to the urban environment. In one early scene, Juan recounts a story from his childhood in Cuba in which an old woman decided that she was going to call him Blue because “In moonlight, black boys look blue.” In addition to providing the film with its title, this line also reflects a focus on colour that we see in Moonlight’s visual design. While scenes alternate between the warmer oranges, pinks and yellows, and the cooler blues to great effect, the most striking aspect of the film’s approach to colour is Jenkins and Laxton’s use of the dark skin tones of the characters as a distinct part of the visual aesthetic of the film. Rarely, if ever, have you seen black actors photographed with such aesthetic intentionality.

While the three Chiron performances are all effective in bringing out different dimensions of the character, it is the supporting performances which really elevate Moonlight. This is a film about relationships: Chiron and his mother, Chiron and the surrogate family of Juan and Teresa, Chiron and Kevin. These performances are all strong and, like with the Chiron performances, do much of their best work without words. These characters are nuanced. Paula is not the stereotypical drug addicted single mother we see in movies. Nor is Juan the typical urban drug dealer. Naomi Harris is the one actor in the cast who straddles all three sections of the film, with her character continually torn between her habit and her child. While we watch her destructiveness and neglect and witness the hurt it inflicts on Chiron, we never doubt the sincerity of Paula’s love for him. But the real scene stealer is Mahershala Ali as Juan, in a crafting a character as influential in his absence as in his presence. Juan only appears in the first chapter, but Teresa’s appearance in the second makes his absence conspicuous to us, giving us questions, and in the third chapter it is quite apparent that Juan is the model for the performance of masculinity that Chiron has taken on. The exploration of the Juan’s impact as a role model is one of the interesting facets of Moonlight’s broader exploration of black masculinity.

A subtle and nuanced film, Moonlight makes its point without didacticism. Ultimately, it speaks to the power of cinema as a medium for identification and human connection. This film tells a queer, black story, which sounds niche, but it makes that story relatable. Through its specificity it finds universality. That is the true power of cinema as an empathy machine, to help people understand the perspective and experience of someone different to themselves.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Moonlight? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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