In today’s society a gay, black man has the odds stacked against him. So does a low-budget film about a gay, black man’s life—neither the real world nor the world of critics and box-office watchers are forgiving places.
But despite that, and an inexperienced ensemble cast and a (previously) unknown sophomore director, Moonlight has become the overnight darling of the film industry, generating unheard-of critical acclaim (and a fair deal of Oscar buzz). The New England premiere at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre turned away more than 250 people. How could it possibly live up to the hype?
By being damn good, that’s how.
Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play is a filmmaking achievement. Its camera work is stunning, its pacing is sublime, and its performances are nothing short of enrapturing. Moonlight both defies stereotypes about black Americans in film and uses them to a powerful symbolic effect. Simple, unconventional, and groundbreaking, Moonlight deserves the crowds it draws and the praise it receives.
Moonlight is divided into three acts: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” each act reflecting the different nicknames the protagonist goes by throughout his life. From bullied, neglected boy (Alex Hibbert), to skinny, angsty teenager (Ashton Sanders), to angry, alpha-male adult (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron’s physical transformation is shocking, but his emotional development is anything but. Chiron is never comfortable in his own body and never has anybody to love.
Jenkins’s complex characters challenge stereotypes of the black American condition. Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug dealer, and his maternal girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), provide young Chiron—“Little”—with fleeting refuge from his crackhead mother Paula (Naomi Harris). Juan is a physically imposing, do-rag-wearing coke slinger who becomes a sort of surrogate father to Little in short time.
Yet there’s more to these characters than the above descriptions suggest. Juan, the seemingly benevolent father figure to Little, is revealed to be the dealer behind Paula’s drug habit. Paula, despite neglecting Little and lighting up in the home, is very protective of her son throughout his life.
Moonlight’s story is full-circle and haunting. As “Little” becomes teenager “Chiron” and eventually hood rat “Black,” his appearance closely mimics that of Juan, from his black do-rag and gold fronts, to his massive, prison-sculpted physique, to his crown-adorned muscle car. Paula eventually finds her way to rehab and reconnects with her distant adult son, while Teresa fades away. Moonlight is a study of cycles and consequences. As a result, there’s little surprise throughout the whole thing. Rather than feeling bland, however, this cause and effect-style storytelling feels flowing and natural. Certain events in Chiron’s life seem inevitable given those he’s gone through before.
If there’s a weak link in Moonlight, it’s in the soundtrack. Though the licensed songs are memorable enough, the background score is unimpressive compared to the rest of the film’s example. That’s not to say the score is bad, or even that it’s below average. The music occasionally shines, like when Juan teaches Little to swim. But some of Moonlight’s most striking scenes lack any music at all—a decidedly simple but effective way of letting visual cues dominate the storytelling.
The camerawork is a joy. It bumps and jitters at times, slowly sweeps at others, and freezes in place at others still. It plays with a viewer’s perception of motion, and deftly paces the film. Though only 111 minutes long, Moonlight feels like a three-hour epic.
And the cast? Well-written dialogue (in local dialect) captures the essence of Liberty City Miami, and the power of the cast’s collective performance simply astonishes. Pain, empathy, and other emotions are present in each character’s every stare, gasp, yell, tear, or conversation. This mostly unknown cast makes a mockery of movies with many times the budget and name recognition.
This tiny-niche film has captivated all who’ve seen it. It rebuffs Hollywood’s steady, safety-first stream of sequels and conventional dramas. Moonlight opens new doors for non-mainstream films, but its impact hinges on both critical and commercial success. Simple, unconventional, and groundbreaking, Moonlight deserves the crowds it draws and the hype it receives. It might even shake up the Hollywood establishment.
Featured Image By A24