Moonlight Is An Instant Classic
One Of 2016’s Finest Films.
Last year a little movie called Dope came out of nowhere and became an indie sensation. Many hailed Dope as exactly the type of diverse casting and socially relevant filmmaking that the #OscarsSoWhite taste-makers choose to ignore. People’s adoration for Dope makes sense; it has a slick and vibrant look, it’s charming, and it’s inoffensive. Dope is constructed with the sole purpose of giving audiences the warm fuzzies. When you break Dope down, it’s not the edgy and subversive film people want it to be. Even as bullets start flying past the Shameik Moore’s finely coiffed flat-top, there’s never any real sense of danger. You just know that the film’s trio of cute and cuddly leads are destined for a John Hughes movie style ending. After all, Dope is to the plight of African-Americans what Chipotle is to authentic Mexican cuisine: An accessible, watered down, tasty treat.
Like Dope, director Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film, Moonlight, also features a mostly African-American cast and explores cultural identity. What separates the two films is that Moonlight isn’t a story audiences want to see, it’s the story audiences need to see. The moment that some bullies chase a young boy into a crack house, we understand that unlike Dope, this coming of age story can fly off the rails. In Moonlight, a heartbreaking ending isn’t a possibility, it’s all but guaranteed.
Moonlight’s story covers three chapters in a young man’s life: Little (childhood), Chiron (teenager), and Black (adult).
The first chapter, Little, takes place during the 80’s. We meet the the film’s main character, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), as a young boy – or Little as his bullies call him. Chiron lives with his crack smoking mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), in a poor Miami suburb. As if life in the ghetto isn’t hard enough, there’s something that makes Chiron different than the other boys around him; Chiron’s mother knows it, the neighborhood bullies know it, and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer notices it right away too. After saving Chiron from bullies, Juan takes the young boy under his wing, offering him a warmth and sense of belonging lacking at home.
The second chapter, Chiron, jumps forward to Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) awkward teenage years. It’s a time when young adults start figuring out who they are. Chiron is still a victim of bullying and we see him struggle with the pain of not fitting in.
In the final chapter, Black, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a grown man. Now going by the name Black, Chiron wears his masculinity like a suit of armor. Instead of a breastplate, shield, and long-sword, Chiron is WWE-level buff, wears gold teeth, and rocks large diamond earrings. Long gone is the gangly teen, in his place stands a hyper-masculine alpha male.
Moonlight is great right out the gate and then gets better with each chapter. Films that jump between time periods often feel closer to anthologies than traditional narratives but Moonlight doesn’t have that problem. Jenkins’ film flows seamlessly from beginning to end, even as the story move from chapter to chapter. Credit must go to the film’s supporting cast. Since Moonlight switches the actors playing Chiron, it’s the supporting actors who provide the emotional threads binding the entire film together.
Moonlight is loaded with knockout performances. I could write an entire review about the three actors playing Chiron or Naomie Harris’ strong turn as Paula. If I had to pick one performance that stayed with me, it’s André Holland as Kevin. Whenever Holland shows up on TV and movie screens he brings his powerful presence with him. Those familiar with his work on The Knick know Holland is at his best when he unleashes his fiery disposition. In Moonlight, what’s most remarkable about Holland is his restraint. Kevin wants so much from his old friend, Chiron, but can only ask for so little. It’s Holland’s subtle glances, half-smiles, and moments of contemplation that helps us connect with Kevin’s longing.
Jenkins takes an understated approach to telling his story. There’s a lot of plot left up in the air for the audience to figure out. There is a character who dies between chapters, and the death is only mentioned in passing much later on. A less confident filmmaker would never leave such a significant moment off in the story’s margins. Had this film been Lee Daniels presents Moonlight, you can be sure the death would happen onscreen. Daniels would ring every last ounce of melodrama out of the moment. Instead, Jenkins takes an almost documentary-like approach to jumping ahead in time. Once we catch up with Chiron, the film’s sole focus is on the here and now.
I’m going to come right out and say that Moonlight is a masterpiece. It’s rare that a director executes so many aspects of filmmaking at such a high level. I haven’t even discussed how vibrantly Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture Chiron’s world. I haven’t touched on Jenkins’ impeccable music queues. The movie also deftly handles its socially relevant subject matter, features knockout performances, and stellar pacing. Every facet of Moonlight is exceptional.
With an African-American cast and its progressive sexual politics, this movie isn’t destined for mainstream success. However, those who care deeply about the art of filmmaking and appreciate masterful storytelling will have their world rocked by this powerful film. Moonlight is a thing of beauty. People will be discussing Moonlight for a very long time. Jenkins is now a director you can’t afford to miss.