“At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.”
Moonlight brings the internal struggle of being a gay black man in America out of the shadows by shining a light on the concept of masculinity within the context of personal identity.
“What’s a faggot?” asks young Chiron, mercilessly bullied by classmates each day, because they consider him different.
Moonlight unfolds in three chapters of one man’s life, from childhood to young adulthood, as he discovers who he is as a black, homosexual man in the Miami projects. With themes including race, homophobia, identity and black masculinity, it’s a miracle that a film of this nature was made. It’s going to be the answer to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite.
The film is based on the unproduced play by gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. “Black men loving each other is a radical idea,” McCraney admit. It certainly isn’t a conventional story, but it’s one that desperately needs to be told.
Being poor, black and struggling with sexual identity are things I know absolutely nothing about. What I can relate to in Moonlight is identity and how society can negatively affect personal development in crucial stages of life. It’s bold exploration of personal adversity is exactly what the world needs to see right now.
Director and writer Barry Jenkins returns from an eight-year film-making hiatus (this will be his second feature after Medicine For Melancholy) to tackle one of the most personal and necessary films of 2016. It’s as beautiful as it is powerful, and it’s message continues to marinate long after viewing. As The Fader describes it, “the movie sometimes unfolds like an episode of The Wire as re-imagined by the French filmmaker Claire Denis.”
Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival then the Toronto International Film Festival surrounded by a Goliath of hot-ticket films. News of the film spread by word-of-mouth as TIFF’s breakout must-see-movie, surpassing the bigger-budgeted star-studded premiers. I was fortunate enough to catch this indie gem at the New Orleans Film Festival.
“The reaction has been amazing,” says the 36-year-old Jenkins in Toronto. He is visibly thrilled – and relieved – to be receiving such acclaim for only his second film. “I’ve had a 65-year-old straight white man bawling in my arms.”
The film follows the life of Chiron in three monumental stages of his life: childhood, adolescence and young adulthood (all played by different actors). The journey of Chiron to self-discovery is tumultuous and heartbreaking.
The first chapter follows young Chiron, aka Little, (Alex Hibbert) who has no father and a junkie mother. His introversion is met with aggression from schoolyard bullies, and his only mentor is a drug dealing kingpin named Juah, magnificently portrayed by House of Cards’ and Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali. Juah’s relationship with Chiron is my favorite coupling in the film; he takes Chiron under his wing helping him on his path to self-discovery.
When we meet Chiron as a lanky, impressionable teenager (Ashton Sanders) nicknamed “Black” against his liking, we discover his introversion has overcome his ability to connect with the outside world. From his dialogue to the way he carries himself perpetually slumped over, his inability to express himself crawls off the screen.
The transition to adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a heartbreaking overcompensation of masculinity to conceal his homosexuality. His hyper-masculinity is accompanied by bulging muscles and a thug-like exterior; an identity to be feared and respected as a dealer on the streets.
Throughout these stages, he meets, loses then reconnects with his only real love, Kevin.
“We don’t get to see stories about these people so we don’t really get to humanise them and see how they get this way. To me it’s groundbreaking that people are responding to a character like this. You walk past someone like him all the time. You see the grills and assume all these things. Fifteen years ago, that kid loved ballet but the world has beaten it out of him.” Barry Jenkins via The Guardian
One of the greatest accomplishment’s of Moonlight is it’s ability to capture both beauty and sorrow so artistically on screen without being preachy. The way Jenkins frames each shot is both methodical and unconventional. His story unfolds delicately like a dreamy memory in the corner of your mind juxtaposed with the dirty, unapologetic Miami streets. Instead of inviting the cliche hip hop beat into any scene, Jenkins chooses the unexpected Mozart to classically pair with Chiron’s ugly reality.
While some had preconceived notions that this may be the black response to Brokeback Mountain, it’s not. At all. The dialogue and internal performances reminded me of a more modern Carol, both grappling with society pressure and treatment. But unlike Carol, which I found dull as dirt, Moonlight has a pulse and heart that bleeds off the screen.
Moonlight is timeless and relevant now more than ever. It’s these inherent fears of acceptance and love that continue to hold us back, and Jenkins and his tremendous troupe bring these issues to the forefront where they belong.