Partly in answer to my last post about the trials of moviegoing in a sea of sequels and franchise films, I went to see Moonlight—an independent film that is getting some serious recognition of late. Like, Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama recognition, and EIGHT (count ‘em) Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, for the 89th Academy Awards. In my mind, independent films are an antidote to the pervasive same-ness of mainstream Hollywood. Moonlight also isn’t horror, but I’ll get back to that next time. Promise. I miss it!
There were a lot of great moments in Moonlight, and it’s beautifully shot, to boot. The acting is superb, especially from the three young stars that portray the main character, Chiron, at different moments in his life. As an underweight and almost frustratingly quiet child, he’s played by Alex Hibbert, and his eyes glow and glare and are soulful all at once, deftly emulating his tumultuous existence as we’re thrust into it as viewers. At the start of the film, bullies chase him into an abandoned crack den in a run-down Miami neighborhood, where he’s found by a dealer, Juan, played with likeable complexity by Mahershala Ali of House of Cards. “Little,” as the young Chiron is known, doesn’t want to speak to Juan, and when he is brought out of his seemingly impenetrable shell by Juan’s gentle girlfriend, Teresa (played by Janelle Monae), he says he doesn’t want to go home. It’s the first of many wrenching moments for the audience: though this early in the film we’re not sure exactly why he feels this way, we know that a child not wanting to be home does not bode well. The next day Juan is able to discern where Chiron lives, and takes him home. One of my favorite shots in the film occurs here: ensconced in Juan’s tricked-out car, Chiron waves his hand out the open passenger window like any kid, in an undulating wave that a little later is paralleled by the actual ocean when Juan teaches him how to swim. The blue sky and white, puffy clouds are reflected on the roof of the sky-blue car, and the camera lingers behind Little’s head, seeing the road ahead. It seems limitless; it’s not. More tribulations lie ahead.
I found the interiors and the mise-en-scene in this movie to be intriguing, as well. The viewer can see the slow deterioration of the small apartment Chiron shares with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris in another great performance) as she spirals deeper and deeper into addiction. Beginning with the disappearance of the television, the place falls apart around them, a visual cypher for their relationship and Paula’s condition. Juan and Teresa’s home is lavish in contrast, though when Chiron first visits, partially applied paint is visible on a wall in the background, as if one setting is crumbling while another is being built. Further, the school from the middle section of the film is a dreary, white, sterile hunting ground for other, larger bullies stalking the almost birdlike, graceful-yet-awkward teenage Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders. Another great image: teen Chiron, tall and lanky, flanked on either side by open institutional doors in the school. Each door acts for a moment as a conduit for the flow of other high-school students, as Chiron stands in his untrendy clothes, motionless and alone.
But if I was a little obsessed with the settings, it’s because they also function—as much of the rest of the film does—as commentary on Chiron’s identity. One of the best things I’ve read about the film was Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote that filmmaker Barry Jenkins “climbed inside” of stereotypes, and asked audiences to look beyond the physical, surface representation of Chiron to try to see the core of the person within. Though the adult Chiron, known as “Black,” ultimately comes to embrace the signifiers of the tough, wealthy, badass drug dealer that he once viewed in Juan, Juan’s inward gentleness, wisdom, and deeply-felt flaws are also infused into Chiron’s makeup. We find Black to be a sort of cover that Chiron employs to distract from his long internal struggle with his sexuality: after one highly charged, intimate encounter with longtime friend Kevin in his teen years, Chiron seems to have repressed all his romantic and sexual impulses, layering over them the tricked-out car, heavy gold chains, and grills he had seen as the markers for masculinity in his youth. He also builds his body up, physically becoming the very antithesis of the gawky kid who experienced these feelings initially. He transforms himself in nearly every way possible, and yet Chang’s analysis rings true: Jenkins is able to convey to the audience that these outward indicators are not, in the end, the defining aspects of Chiron. That inside them there is someone else that we, the audience, glimpse throughout the film. We’re unsure, perhaps, which of Chiron’s previous experiences is truly at the core of his being—the childhood bullying, the adolescent sexual encounter, the final (extremely satisfying) reprisal of his teenage tormenters, or all of the above—but that the film asks us to even think about those formative events as we come to know Black in the final act is what makes it so compelling. We no longer believe the surface narrative. We want to know what’s really in there, underneath.
It’s significant, then, that this film initially could be very much about surfaces: that the conceit of the title, from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is about how black boys LOOK. But it’s the quality of the light, or the balance of light and darkness, in this case, encouraging you to look deeper and see beyond that surface. Moonlight is an important film for this moment, documenting with simultaneous care and unflinching realism the triple encumbrance of growing up Black, poor, and gay in contemporary America. It’s also a finely realized, nuanced portrait of complex characters, contextualized by their spaces—their dwellings, the seashore, and the interior space of identity—that is not only well-wrought, but challenging to the mainstream, and therefore deserves widespread viewing.