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Directed by Barry Jenkins
Running time 111 minutes
Synopsis: A young black kid growing up a poor neighborhood of Miami during the 1980s struggles to find his true self.
Compared to the way in which reviewers are vying to outdo each other with rapturous praise for this film, the enthusiastic critical reception accorded to its vastly over-rated fellow Oscar nominee, La La Land, hardly counts as a ripple. “An historic achievement”, “a masterpiece” that “casts its gaze up toward something transcendent” are just a few samples from the film’s publicity flyer. Without a doubt Moonlight is a good film but it’s not THAT good.
Moonlight is based on an unproduced James Baldwinesque play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell Alvin McCraney about a young black gay teen struggling to find his identity in the unforgiving world of black Miami during the crack epidemic of the ‘80s. Adapted for the screen by director Jenkins with fine cinematography by James Laxton, resonant music by Nicholas Britell and consistently excellent performances by an ensemble cast, Moonlight recalls the early films of Spike Lee but with a more poetized approach to its subject matter. Drugs and social malaise are present but more as background references, with the film staying firmly focused in the main character, variously known as Little, Chiron and Black, and his struggle to understand his homosexuality in a belligerently homophobic macho culture. It is precisely this divorce between inward-looking poetics and outward-looking realism, with the film being a carefully-crafted series of artistically composed vignettes rather than a drama played out onscreen, that will divide audiences (although admittedly to date the naysaying camp only numbers one member - me)
Told in three chapters portraying Chiron as a child (Alex Hibbert), a high school-aged student (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes) we first meet Little as he was then known being bullied by some kids from his neighbourhood, hiding in a “drug hole” and coming under the wing of the local king-pin drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Chapter Two jumps forward by five or six years and Chiron is a gangly youth still being bullied (Juan has dropped out of the picture) by his school peers. In the final chapter Chiron has effectively become Juan having completely transformed himself into a “gangsta” drug-dealer.
Immediately there are certain questions that arise in the first chapter such as why is Juan so interested in Little? When Little asks him “what does ‘faggot’ mean?’and Juan replies that it is a word people use “to make gay people feel bad about themselves “ it all feels rather too tastefully broadminded coming from an individual dealing in other people’s misery. Even so, chapters one and two work together well as they chart Chiron’s relationships with his best friend, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner then Jharrel Jerome) and his increasingly strung-out mother (British actress Naomie Harris is outstanding in the role)
When we jump to the third chapter, however, the adult Chiron now called Black (Rhodes) has morphed into a full-blown gangsta with bling, grillz (gold dental caps) and a physique like the Amazing Hulk. Rhodes does a good job with playing down his imposing physicality but the incongruity is hard to reconcile oneself to (on the other hand the Kevin character retains a convincing continuity). One can understand Chiron's self-protective identification with Juan but psychologically the transformation doesn’t fit. Jenkins has Chiron tear up when he meets his rehabilitated and repentant mother but what made Little/Chiron an effective character was his emotional taciturnity. Now Jenkins has to have his main man cry in order to offset the idea that he’s become a macho crack-dealing thug. Nor for that matter does his reunion with Kevin (André Holland) in which after following his always more dominant friend home like a puppy dog he tells him “you’re the only man who’s ever touched me…the only one”, a line which recalls Joe Buck’s pained memories in Midnight Cowboy (1969). This is after a ten year hiatus for cryin’ out loud. Little/Chiron would have quashed these feelings long ago.
Jenkins frames his story well using lots of close-ups to suggest an intimate connection with the characters and ties the film's episodes together with Lee-like visual flourishes, including a circling camera and colour symbology as well as playing with the sound design to emphasize Chiron’s subjectivity. It’s artistically pleasing indeed and an impressive twinning of form and content but whether “it will transform lives long after it leaves the theatres" as one enthusiastic reviewer has been quoted as claiming, is another matter.
FYI: Mercifully Moonlight beat La La Land to the Best Picture Oscar albeit in one of the biggest bungles of the Awards' history whilst Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.