Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Ashton Sanders, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monae, Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Patrick Decile, Trevante Rhodes
Released: February 17th, 2017
Moonlight is one of those films that anytime your mind tends to float back to it inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come with it. It is a film that both simply and oh so complexly transcends all barriers of politics and beliefs and presents a bare bones human story that just so happens to deal with being black and being gay. It’s always been clear, especially from the outside looking in, that the culture that forms young black men is one of the most high-pressure environments for one to be tough, hard, or essentially show little to no feeling at all. “Toxic masculinity” as it has been labeled in recent writings. There has long existed the stigma that to be hard or worthy of being a man one must be largely indifferent to those things that naturally give us weaknesses in the world. By tackling this idea and how it affects the growth and development of one underprivileged youth is at one time to present exactly what it promises while at another-painting a much broader picture of this toxicity that has been constructed by society for which many young men are led to believe there are certain actions that have to be taken or certain attitudes that must be adopted in order to make them worthy of being a man. This doesn’t have to necessarily deal with sexuality, but more this condition is about those stereotypes of men-emotionless, dominant, violent-that society has relayed to determine certain levels of masculinity. That Moonlight addresses such expectations and the baggage, the torture, and the living hell such expectations can carry when not met in the judgmental environments of the projects or of high school or even of one’s mother who knows the essence of her son, but isn’t strong enough herself to stand up to such stigma’s thus leaving that child for the wolves of the world is powerful enough. That Moonlight is able to explore these largely ignored aspects of manhood in such poetic and provocative ways as through the lens of a young man growing up black, poor, and gay only makes these points that much more enlightening and subsequently-that much more powerful. Moonlight is a film that, anytime you think about, are reminded of, or even consider the ground it covers and the essence of what it embodies not only in its ideas and themes, but in its nearly flawless execution inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come as well. More than anything, writer/director Barry Jenkins understands the human element at the core of these issues and by parlaying as much through the single perspective of Chiron at three different stages of his life we are delivered a fleshed out portrait of the true internal tendencies versus the ideals we’re taught we should become.
Adapted from the unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by MacArthur Fellow (a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to between 20 and 40 individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work” in any field) Tarell Alvin McCraney Moonlight takes us through three stages of the life of Chiron. Chiron was born into near poverty in South Florida and recognizes there is something different about himself from all the other boys very early on. In the first sequence of the film dubbed “Little” we are introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) at the age of nine as he is chased through the streets by a gang of bullies and fellow classmates who hurl the word “faggot” at him in condescending ways only for young Chiron to find refuge in what we assume is an abandoned crack house off the beaten path. Left to be alone by his peers Chiron is discovered to be hiding by drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes Chiron into his surprisingly pleasant existence whose work doesn’t seem to interfere or even make an appearance in conversation when it comes to his home life with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Teresa takes in Chiron as if he were one of her and Juan’s own giving him a hot meal, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and the kind of reassurance his real mother can hardly provide. As things come to be discovered it seems Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug-addled junkie who finds her supply in the dealers Juan oversees on the streets. In essence, the cushy lifestyle of Juan and Teresa that Chiron comes to find solace in is fueled by the addiction of people like his own mother. Chiron feels betrayed by the man who he’d come to see as something of his savior. We are then flash-forwarded six or so years into the future where Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school and is more or less living in that aforementioned living hell where he is teased incessantly only to find a glimmer of hope and of something to potentially look forward to in a moment that develops with classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It is only after the two share an intimate moment though, that Chiron once again feels betrayed by someone he thought he could trust. This development pushes the third sequence of the film to depict a nearly thirty year-old Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) who has repressed everything that once made him who he was and who has instead embraced the thug stereotype of black culture as Chiron is now virtually mirroring the existence of his one-time mentor, Juan.
To make this world of South Florida that begins in what seems to be the early to mid-nineties come to life in vivid and believable ways Jenkins not only employs the use of time-stamped clothing styles and technology, but more he builds the aura of this era through the way he decides to visually display such markers of the era. There is an intentional brightness to the “Little” section that radiates the supposed and inherent wonder of childhood that should always be allowed to be expressed mixed with the heat of the summer sun to the point one can almost feel the relief of the heat when a character steps indoors. In the second section of the film, dubbed simply “Chiron”, the brightly lit aesthetic is still intact, but Jenkins seems to remain more focused on the characters in terms of close-ups rather than exploring the atmosphere that helps define the nurturing aspect of Chiron’s development in the first act. All of these strict aesthetic choices indeed feel wholly calculated and precise in a manner that certain scenes have an almost staged quality to them in order to make the overall artistic ambition of the film’s message that much clearer. To paint a truly distinctive portrait of who Chiron is at these certain points in his life. The performances of Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are beyond great and do this on a level all their own, but Jenkins’ visual prowess only stands to add reinforcement to each of these three distinct periods. That isn’t to say Moonlight is a film that speaks down to its audience by painting too obvious a picture of what it is attempting to convey-it is exactly the opposite if anything at all, but that Jenkins doesn’t shy away from his stylistic choices and that they stand out to be as stunning as the revelations that come forth concerning masculinity is a match that perfectly encapsulates the yearning and the repression. This becomes even more of a prevalent factor when such imagery is paired with Nicholas Britell’s score. As equally haunting as it is subtle the string-heavy music underpins the emotions expressed on the faces of the three actors playing Chiron that they may not speak of, but that we can see in their expressions and that are pulled out even further by the certain themes assigned to each stage of Chiron’s growth. Jenkins is also able to reinforce the multiple aspects of his major themes by lending the style a fearsome and unrelenting tone of anxiety. Whereas the first two sections of the film are brightly lit and take place mostly during the day the third act of Moonlight, labeled “Black”, is marked by nights and Chiron’s dark wardrobe. Turning the feelings of animosity and terror that lurked at every turn of the first two acts into that of a life conquered by a fear of emasculation through the facade necessary to preserve what most consider masculine.
Saying that Moonlight accomplishes so much of what makes it great through the direction and vision of Jenkins would surely be true, but without the right actors in place to pull of this difficult triptych storyline it’s hard to imagine Moonlight having the same impact or resonating as much as it does in those aforementioned recollections. Within this tale of three time periods exists several solid performances and not just within the main character and the comparison of how well each stage compliments the next, though that achievement is not to be taken away from. Each of the three actors portraying Chiron give this character a calmness and quietness that resonates throughout the film. There is much for the movie to be angry about in light of the treatment its main character receives and yet Moonlight never feels harsh or aggressive, but rather it basks in the fact it’s not trying to solve its subjects problems-it is simply observing them and allowing the viewer to take away from it what they will. Despite the fact none of the three actors playing Chiron met one another while shooting there is a clear and very vivid interpretation of the character that comes through in each of the performances in those moments when Chiron allows himself to drop his guard. The same could be said for André Holland who plays the older version of Kevin and who somehow, despite also never meeting Jerome during shooting, matches the temperament and speech pattern of the earlier portrayal of the character in the small, but necessarily delicate ways. Holland is especially effective in the final act of the film as the tension at the sight of his and Chiron’s reunion and what might happen is cut before the big speech is ever made. Rather, as is the theme in Moonlight-only enough is said to where its point can be understood. There isn’t a large amount of dialogue and when there is it is generally to make aware a very pointed idea or observation. In this way, such conversations remain striking and easy to remember when those inevitable recollections again beg for your empathy. The truth is though, Moonlight doesn’t have to beg for either empathy or sympathy for by the time the film comes to its quietly powerful and immensely moving conclusion you’re more than willing to hand over such understandings. Harris and Ali will be rightly praised for their performances that form the basis of who the central character becomes and Rhodes and Holland will garner much attention for their show-stopping performances based solely around conversation and looks in the final sequence of the film, but Moonlight is a film made as impactful as it is by the sum of its parts-a barrier breaking piece of work that makes a statement by being wholly vulnerable or, in other words, the exact opposite of what societal standards tell men they need to be in order to be worthy of anything.