“If I tell you ‘I’m going to make a film about a young black boy in the ghetto who’s struggling with his sexuality, whose mother is a crack addict,’ you already know what it will look like. In general, something like the Dardennes, with a very gray tone, handheld camera. I like the Dardennes a lot, but I wanted the aesthetic to reflect much more the consciousness and emotions of the character than the story itself. This preconception gave me a much greater freedom. Potentially unlimited.”
– Barry Jenkins, writer/director of Moonlight
Much of the discourse around Moonlight, one of the best films of the year, has centred around what it represents rather than what it is. This sympathetic portrait of a young black man – a boy, a teenager, an adult – struggling with his sexuality and the expectations of his society has become a serious Oscar contender. In the wake of understandable #OscarsSoWhite pushback and the likely win of La La Land, this had many to champion Moonlight as a kind of symbol of what Hollywood should be: queer, intersectional, inclusive.
While this is a compelling narrative, it’s overly simplistic (while feeding into facile comparisons between La La Land and Moonlight like this, as though the two films are staunch opponents rather than a pair of worthy artworks). Yes, Moonlight is queer and intersectional and inclusive, but it’s also experimental and aesthetically astounding.
Walking into the film – having consciously avoided in depth discussion beforehand – I honestly expected something akin to what Jenkins describes in that quote. A realist film, with unambitious visuals emphasising character and performance. Instead, what I saw was a visually rich, deeply moving masterpiece that elevated its story by choosing to find a new way of telling it. Jenkins’ direction is intuitive and empathetic, even subjective, delving into the truth of its characters’ experience.
It’s a film you experience as much as watch. I have little in common with protagonist Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes across three time periods); while I’ve had my own struggles with masculinity and sexuality, there’s scant similarity between the experiences of a white boy in rural Victoria and a black boy in the Miami ghetto. But the film’s aesthetic whole – its fluid editing, its expressive camerawork, its achingly-affecting score – dissolves the difference between me and him, making the specific universal.
Mahershala Ali seems likely to walk away with the Supporting Actor statuette come Oscar night for playing Juan, a drug dealer who becomes mentor and role model to young Chiron. It would be a deserving win, but there’s so many other actors who warrant the same acclaim (even if I personally found Naomie Harris’ Oscar-nominated performance disappointing). Watch how Sanders sketches Chiron’s path from withdrawn nervousness to something harder; then how Rhodes allows that solidity to almost imperceptibly soften, the boy in the man. Or look at the work of André Holland, who effortlessly conveys a sense of lived history, of regrets and flashes of happiness mixed up in the sadness.
Holland plays Kevin in the third chapter, a boy that was Chiron’s friend and, once, his lover. The boys’ beachside flirtation in the middle third of the film is Moonlight’s finest moment; a deftly-observed dissolution of masculine rigidity. Witness how their conversation slides from posturing to poetry, gently puncturing the layers of armour young boys must accumulate to protect themselves, their reputation. That’s Moonlight, then: the poetic breaking through the quotidian in carefully-considered yet intuitive gestures. Unmissable.