Director: Barry Jenkins
Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2016
Plan B Entertainment and A24.
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay); Tarell Alvin McCraney (story); based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight is a film unlike any that most of us have ever seen. That it exists at all is a testament to the determination of Jenkins, playwright and author Tarell Alvin McCraney, Plan B Entertainment and A24, who felt that the time was right to present a brave, frank, and bold look at a gay African-American male, told through three formative chapters of the man’s life.
To characterize Moonlight in that way, however, is something of a disservice to Jenkins’ incredible achievement. Though the optics on the storytelling appear new, Jenkins and McCraney tell the story of a man surrounded by few positive and many negative influences – those that define what he becomes, what he is afraid of becoming, and how he tries to find strength and resolve growing up in a culture were who he is as a person is viewed as weak, soft, or something worth denigrating and demonizing.
The main character, Chiron, is represented by three different actors. One timid, one curious, one big in stature, all closeted and living afraid. We first meet Chiron as “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert), who finds sanctuary in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juan, a drug dealer, finds Little in an abandoned crack house and takes him home for an evening when Little silently refuses to disclose where he lives. Juan eventually returns him home the next morning to Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse and single mother struggling to make ends meet.
As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has seen his mother’s spiral into drug addiction and the bullying against him only intensify. His only real friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who senses Chiron’s secrets and becomes something of a down low confidant to him. When things take an unexpected turn, Chiron’s trust and openness soon demolished, he has nowhere to turn, no sense of home or connection to anyone.
Kevin’s nickname for Chiron, “Black”, defines Chiron’s adult life and Trevante Rhodes slips into the skin of a man who is big and ripped, dealing drugs, and emulating the life Juan led. A surprising phone call leads to a testing of Black’s trust and vulnerabilities when he drives from Atlanta to Miami for an unlikely reunion with an old friend (André Holland).
The connectivity that Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes create is incredible, each actor, who looks little like the other, finding commonalities within themselves to build and create a human being that speaks beyond looks and/or environment. You need not be African-American and/or gay to connect with Chiron, as universal themes of acceptance of yourself and those around you, and not being too afraid to seek and need guidance and love from people circling near you, can speak volumes no matter who you are.
Moonlight was made for $1.5 million and never did anyone affiliated with the film expect it would land 8 Oscar nominations, much less become a potential Best Picture winner. Jenkins’ drew on his experiences as a lost kid, subjected to bullying, and bridged those moments to McCraney’s honest and emotionally freeing play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
Every performance feeds off the other and the ensemble Jenkins assembles is expertly cast. The score by Nicholas Britell is haunting, a character almost in and of itself, hanging around Chiron and influencing his decisions and actions. Among the nominations the film received, editors Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders were rightly recognized, finding brilliant ways to bring all three main character performances to a place of centering and solitude.
Moonlight is a beautiful, tough, sobering film. And with all of the things viewers may or may not connect with, one thing is unmistakable: the optics here are new. And important. And vitally necessary. Though the film concludes with two shots that inspire hope, water the eyes, and leave you contemplating everything you have just seen, Moonlight is a movie driven by its actors. And whether it is first time actor Hibbert or a veteran talent like Ali, the world where this moonlight glows is everlasting and unforgettable.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- A film that truly will be discussed for years to come.
- Monumental storytelling and uncompromising in recognizing its anger, confusion, and emotional complexity, Moonlight is a beautiful, truly independent cinematic story that needed to be told and heard.
- Barry Jenkins cannot wait 8 years until making his next film.
- The film tells a frank and courageous tale about a black kid, teenager, and adult facing a fight within himself as he grows up in a world that reminds him that who he is inside is not okay. If that is not something you just cannot conceive in your mind, then celebrate your privilege.
- I imagine this movie would cut some people really, really deep and be a difficult watch because it may hit very close to home.
- If you watch this through the eyes of looking to see an Oscar frontrunner, you may be disappointed. Moonlight took 10 years, scraping together $1.5 million, to even get made at all. No one associated with this ever expected it to be on a stage this big. Consider that before you dismiss it and discard it.