Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is a masterpiece of our time. It’s an exciting testimony to the enduring power of cinema, and its constant evolution, which nowadays is more often than not defined by technological advancements rather that authorial prowess, perspective, and representation.
Moonlight is the story of young Chiron and is split into three acts: in the first act, he is a kid named Little (Alex Hibbert); as a teen, he is known by his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders); in the final part of the movie, as an adult, he re-invents himself as Black (Trevante Rhodes). In the first two acts of this triptych, Chiron is a scrawny, quiet kid, constantly bullied by his peers. He slowly but surely begins to understand who he is; his awakening is pinned against the backdrop of a hostile and harsh urban landscape. He is also constantly worried by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). Though he is obviously intelligent and sensible, danger is constantly lurking around the corner.
Chiron struggles to find people he can feel comfortable around and confide in. Unexpectedly, in the first act of the movie, he finds a father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Miami-drug baron who rescues him from a crack-house, where Chiron was hiding from bullies. Juan lets Chiron sleep at his house, gives him money and even teaches him how to swim in one of the film’s most gorgeous sequences. On the other hand, Juan also sells Chiron’s mother drugs. Despite being present only in the first act of Moonlight, Juan will remain a constant presence in the film; in the third part of the film, as mentioned, Chiron will have re-invented himself as an unrecognizably bulked-up drug baron named Black. His transformation may be the result of a predestination dictated by a complex and pre-ordained order of things (à la Emile Zola); however, it could also be as a result of self-loathing. Nonetheless, one day, his old friend Kevin (André Holland) unexpectedly calls him. The meeting between the two will serve as the film’s honest and emotional epilogue.
It is perhaps best to approach Moonlight knowing no more than this about the storyline, and by directly experiencing Chiron’s complicated awakenings and discoveries about his own self. After all, this is a big part of the movie’s power and intention. The director and cinematographer James Laxton constantly aim to place us in their characters’ skins through an innovative and clever use of point of view shots and through an approach in which every shot represents an emotion. The cinematography is also charged with expressing things that are not openly talked about; things that are kept buried within the characters of the movie, but also kept hidden away, beneath the surface of the film’s geographical environment and social structure. Further, Jenkins avoids reliance on dialogue, or a more general literary (or textual) approach, opting instead to make the most out of the creative tools that cinema, as an artform, has at its disposal.
Moonlight will also go down in history as a landmark movie for an extra-diegetic reason: it is a masterpiece filmed with an all-black cast. This is important. Far too often, blacks (and other non-white ethnicities and cultures) have been relegated to marginal roles of filmic representation, particularly in dramatic, arthouse movies. However, this should not distort our attention from highlighting the performances by said cast. For instance, Naomie Harris, as the only cast member to be featured in all the three acts of the movie, is worth highlighting. In the first part, we see her as a beautiful young woman; by the second part of the film, her crippling crack addiction has left visible marks on her body and begun a heartbreaking precocious ageing process; in the third part of the film, signs of addiction have clearly marked her, but we see her with a new sense of composure and dignity. The final interaction with her son of the movie is just as heartbreakingly honest as the one between Kevin and Chiron, not so much for what the two characters say to each other, but because it allows us to recall the missed opportunities of their connection with one another and the positive effects they might have had on each other’s lives had it not been for elements beyond their control (social, genetic, political, etc.) that forced their lives into other directions.
Likewise, Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are excellent in embodying the three stages of Chiron’s life. Though the physical attributes of the character inevitably change (as mentioned, most notably, in the third act), the essence of the characters survives thanks to the three actors.
Finally, a few words must be spared for Barry Jenkins, who is set to become one of the most important filmmakers of this and any other generation. Eight years passed between his 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight. His first feature was followed by a number of writing stints on film and television. Jenkins obviously matured during this time, and the lengthy gap between Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight possibly accounts for its careful and confident arrangement. As mentioned, the film features an all-black cast. I will argue that the film is also a contemporary masterpiece of black cinema. To illustrate this point, I will refer to the epitome of modern black art: jazz music. Jazz was able to defy the cultural division between blacks and whites, especially (though not exclusively) in America. Cinema, as an art form, should be a cultural meeting ground, especially at a time where cultural and racial discrimination is still part of political agendas. I will go one step further and claim that Jenkins recalls Louis Armstrong. The comparison holds up on a formal level as well as a cultural one. Moonlight is a film that evidently seeks to establish a sensorial and cerebral connection with the viewer rather than a textual one, without breaking out of the more traditional pleasures of cinema that can be drawn out of a linear and precise narrative arch. Take for instance the structure of the film: the temporal gaps between the three acts recalls Armstrong’s soloing, sometimes behind the beat, sometimes opting on purpose for a wrong note, sometimes not playing a note at all. Both techniques allow for a more active, engaging interaction with the spectator/listener, but not to an excess that makes their works feel demanding. Culturally, Armstrong became the principal perpetrator of black culture in a racially segregated America by playing black music that originated from a black heritage. Similarly, Moonlight tells a black story, from a black environment, through a medium that has constantly struggled to offer non-white ethnicities worthy representation, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Armstrong, or course, became the world’s most famous, revered and beloved musician, and one of the most important figures in the history of music. There is no doubt in my mind: the same thing will happen for Jenkins in cinema.
My observation is not meant to attach the label of “black filmmaker” on Jenkins. On the contrary, his films clearly evoke influences from other filmmakers of various cultures, from Martin Scorsese to Wong Kar Wai. Furthermore, Moonlight also deals with more universal themes, such as masculinity and social structure. Though it comes from a violent, hostile and harsh environment, it is also ultimately marked by an irresistible joie de vivre, unlike the naturalist novels of Zola, who was also concerned with the effects of pre-ordained order of things on humanity. The success of the film in these regards has led many to define it as a symphony of love. Therefore, my observations are simply in praise of Moonlight as a milestone of cinema’s evolution as a universal filmic language and cultural meeting ground through a representation of characters that have, up to recently, been downright ignored. They are also in praise of its maker, Barry Jenkins, who now stands as one of the leading perpetrators of this new, exciting age of cinema. – ★★★★★
MOONLIGHT || 2016, USA || Drama || Directed by – Barry Jenkins / Written by – Barry Jenkins (based on the novel In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) / Produced by – Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner / Music by – Nicholas Britell / Cinematography by – James Laxton / Edited by – Nat Sanders, Joi McMillion / Starring – Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali / Running time: 111 mins.