What if you grew up Black, while also feeling like you are a homosexual? It’s hard enough living through one of the two, which is why it takes a seriously committed director like Barry Jenkins to accept the challenge. He doesn’t have that much experience directing feature-length films, but in Moonlight, you would think he’s been a master of his craft for decades. His latest feature has been picking up tremendous well-deserved Oscar buzz due to its subtle shock value that grips you throughout all the important milestones of a boy’s growth into a man within an all-Black community.
The boy’s name is Chiron, and Jenkins introduces us to him while he is on the run from other boys at school who throw garbage at him. His tears of fright call the attention of a humble, hospitable member of the community, played with a cool soothing voice by Mahershala Ali. In this stage of his youth, Chiron’s words are far and few in between, leaving room for what he doesn’t say, rather than what he does say, to craft his complex character. At this point he’s given the name “Little” by the friendly older man, who plans to help him get home, against the boy’s wishes, and for good reason. His mother is the living embodiment of the environment he must grow up in: trashed, rejected, dependent on drugs to sustain mental stability, in other words, the usual Black mother figure of Hollywood cinema. It’s not the best portrayal of Black women, but Naomie Harris’ (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Skyfall) performance as this mother figure is the most disturbing and terrifying onscreen depiction since Heath Ledger’s Joker.
This man quickly becomes the father figure “Little” never knew he wanted, as depicted by a nostalgic swimming lesson on the seashore. He may have the role model his mother failed to be, but it turns out that’s not what his biggest problem is. Rather, his sadness comes from daily getting called a “faggot,” so frequently in fact, that he wonders if it’s true. Under any other directors’ hands, this scene could easily go dreadfully wrong, but Jenkins knew how to pace it in a fashion that commands tears to be shed as Chiron opens up about his sexuality.
Then we are shown his teenage years, where he is given the nickname “Black” by his best friend Kevin. He almost always keeps to himself as his social capacity is limiting; his mother’s desperate harassment towards him for drug money not helping in the process. Just like anybody in their teenage years, here is where screenwriter (also Barry Jenkins) cranks up his storytelling vigor, throwing in detail after detail of Chiron’s most important memories to keep even the most distanced of minds intrigued.
The visual flavor is not like other motion pictures you have seen. Everything about the camerawork is flawed: the image jerks all over, the image spins in and out of focus, the white balance is off, but you know what? It works. If done unintentionally, this would appear to be the work of any amateur who’s never touched a camera before. But director of photography James Laxton orchestrates these imperfections to match the disorder of Chiron’s desire for self-discovery. Nicholas Brittel’s (The Big Short) soundtrack matches the troubling look of the picture to help you hate the people that Chiron would want dead.
While it may be an immediate shut-off for many to see the very open life of a homosexual, especially in a film that features only one White actor (playing a police officer), this is one of the most intriguing looks into Blackness of the past decade. It’s not every day you look into a world where all Blacks casually call each other a “n*gger” as if it’s common slang. So if the subject matter does not offend you, and you want to feel better about the place of Blackness in our world, then Jenkins’ character study is made especially for you.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
Brannan, Alex. MOONLIGHT (2016) MOVIE REVIEW. Digital image. CineFiles Movie Reviews. WordPress, 4 Nov 2016. Web. <https://cinefilesreviews.com/2016/11/04/moonlight-2016-movie-review/>.
Moonlight. A24. Web. <http://www.moonlight-movie.com/>.