This article originally appeared in the Beaver issue of Tuesday January 10, 2017.
Barry Jenkins’ Oscars contender, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama school play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, will be remembered as one of 2016’s cinematic highlights. Starring Trevante Rhodes (‘Black’), Ashton Sanders (‘Teen Chiron’) Alex Hibbert (‘Little’) as three differently aged portraits of the same character, “Moonlight” tells the story of a young, black, poor, gay Chiron trying to make his way in tough Miami neighbourhood Liberty City amid the crack addiction gripping his mother, portrayed exceptionally by Naomie Harris. Three acts present Chiron’s tale, each roughly a decade apart, but are interweaved by a smart screenplay and Jenkins’ outstanding direction. “Moonlight” compels its viewers to neglect the conventional understandings of morality and typical representations of black men in cinema, resulting in a potent film that has left audiences speechless, contemplating, and usually applauding.
In a Question and Answer session following a preview screening at Piccadilly Circus’ Picturehouse Central, Barry Jenkins and actor Naomie Harris were greeted by deservedly long ovations. What stands out most notably are the acting performances, which across the board are jaw-droppingly effective. Rhodes, Sanders and Hibbert may not have met until “Moonlight’s” screening at the Toronto Film Festival last September, but they are each extremely able in transforming Chiron into a cohesive but multi-dimensional character. First, a traumatised child looking for a father, then a bullied teenager coming to terms with his repressed sexuality, and lastly a frustrated drug dealer, McCraney’s semi-autobiographical character is an incredibly well-written and well-presented personification of African American strife in a world neatly described by Jenkins as “masculinity run amok.”
Their film reflects a set of shared artistic values originating from remarkably similar upbringings: both are from Liberty City, attended the same elementary and middle schools at the same time (both are 36), and grew up in broken households plagued by their mothers’ hard drug enslavements. This creative harmony is apparent through Chiron’s mother, Paula, in one of the film’s myriad compelling performances. Harris had long shunned the prospect of playing drug addicts, feeling this a stereotypical, damaging representation of black women. But Jenkins was able to convince her he could utilise her abundant gravitas and intense versatility. On this he was right. Mel Gibson recently praised Andrew Garfield, star of his fellow Oscars rival “Hacksaw Ridge”, as the sort of actor “through whose eyes you can see straight into his soul.” This certainly feels true of Harris in “Moonlight”. Her research for the role – which was necessarily sizeable, as Harris doesn’t even drink coffee, never mind use drugs or alcohol – entailed watching footage of crack addicts on YouTube. Initially judgemental, her realisation that all too often the source of the habit was sexual abuse, and a subsequent desire to “escape from the trauma”, changed her mind. Poignantly, Harris told the Picturehouse audience that portraying this was unexpectedly straightforward. “As an actor, on some level, you must be uncomfortable in your own skin and want to escape, because that’s why you choose to do a profession where you inhabit other souls, different souls, all the time. It’s a weird thing to do, you know, if you’re really comfortable in who you are.” That similar feeling of insecurity and dissatisfaction with oneself, Harris said, was her “in” to Paula.
Jenkins was forced to shoot all of Paula’s scenes within three days, because of visa issues regarding her British passport. Jenkins lamented that “Even though our countries speak the same language, they don’t know how to coordinate… shit.” For her then to have brought such depth, heart and originality to Paula is highly impressive, something the Oscar committee would be careless to ignore. Jenkins’ ability to get the very best from his actors, only a handful of which had any professional experience, is almost Woody Allen-esque. The exemplary cast is completed by Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome and Jaden Piner as three realisations of Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin; Mahershala Ali’s fatherly dealer Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). To an individual these performances are profound and memorable. Far from simply a ‘queer love story’ or a ‘black film’, “Moonlight” fundamentally attempts to uncover a beauty often not recognised. Instead of conventional representations of black men in Hollywood, often hyper-sexual and hyper-violent, McCraney attempted to look deeper. He told the LA Times that “It’s probably under the moonlight that we see black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate. It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.” In this sense, Jenkins’ film provides a new perspective on black men in film, representing inner thoughts and feelings with a rare tension and intensity. In what looks to have been a strong year for African American-led cinema, after the notorious #OscarsSoWhite scandal marred the 2016 season, the significance of “Moonlight” for the future portrayal of black men and black sexuality could be transformative.
Nonetheless, criticism for “Moonlight”, while scarce, has focused on similar areas. Primarily, it is not a film to be enjoyed by everyone. It is quintessentially part of the low-to-mid budget art-house field that tends to dominate awards season chatter among film critics and journalists, but is often less appreciated by mainstream audiences. The self-admitting film nerd on my left enjoyed it (and for a second time, too), while my more conventionally tasted friends found it slow-moving at times and generally hard to connect with. Jenkins admitted that audience enjoyment is a mere positive externality of “Moonlight”; “I’m glad you guys get a chance to share it with [McCraney and I], but it was made for us… in the world we grew up in.” There is certainly something to be said for films that don’t attempt to pander to audiences, instead portraying real-life experiences and asking viewers to immerse themselves. But the assertion that this film largely exists to communicate the experiences and emotions of McCraney and Jenkins is an important one. Brian Formo of Collider summarised this: “Moonlight is more important than it is great.” For some critics, and in terms of raw quality, it is almost a perfect film. But if what you look for in cinema is a warm, shallower sense of escapism and entertainment, “Moonlight” may not offer the same satisfaction. It is the best example of an anti-Adam Sandler film I can remember. “Moonlight” is, nonetheless, an incredibly effective study of race, sexuality, poverty, loneliness, identity.
Stanley Kubrick famously quipped that the film review is intrinsically flawed because, although a feature can take several years, most critics craft their retrospective “in an hour.” Admittedly, no review of “Moonlight” can encapsulate the entirety of its themes and artistic method, which abound with subtlety and brilliance throughout its 110-minute runtime. Despite its predominantly dark pallet and tones, Jenkins insists it is not a “miserable portrait” of Liberty City, but attempts to present beauty and violence and hardship all in one. “Some people grew up in tough places that are gorgeous. This place gorgeous.” The same could be said of his masterful film.