Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Alex R. Hibbert
Director: Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is one of only a handful of LGBT films to have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. While LGBT films are ten-a-penny nowadays, few pack the same punch or display the same cinematic craftsmanship as Barry Jenkins' breakthrough hit, which charts the early life of a dejected young man who is struggling with his sexuality. From its handful of Awards-worthy performances to its disarming cinematography, this is a truly great work of cinema.
Juan (Ali) is a drug dealer who finds Chiron (Hibbert), a young boy, hiding from bullies in a crack-den. Unwilling to return to his addict mother (Harris), Juan takes him home to stay with his wife (Monae). This new friendship will have a great impact on Chiron (played later by Sanders and Rhodes), who looks up to Juan as his surrogate father. When Chiron asks if he is a "faggot", Juan gives him the support he needs, even if nobody else in his community does. And as he grows up, these early experiences have a great impact on the man that he becomes.
Moonlight's three act structure allows for different actors to breathe vivid life into the character of Chiron. While all three actors display real depth, it is Rhodes' Chiron in the final act that really bubbles with life. The character has endured so much, having barely coped with the blows raining down in him, resulting in manhood that has been carefully assembled as a protective shield for the boy still hiding within. This final incarnation comes as a shock upon his first appearance, but it is testament to Rhodes' remarkable abilities that we can see the cowering boy still inside this pillar of muscle.
Opposite, André Holland is charmingly charismatic as the object of his affection, twinkling with eager expectation. Ali is also magnetic, giving real depth to Juan without tripping over the stereotype of the "drug dealer with a heart". Meanwhile, Harris is devastatingly deplorable, showing the darkest depths of addiction with appalling realism, especially as she begs her son for money to feed her habit. In fact, the whole cast is captivating in this brutally subtle film.
Filmed on the streets of Miami, Moonlight captures urbane normalcy with entrancing beauty. The motion of its camera gives a sense of impatience, while its sweeping classical score underpins the magnitude of Chiron's feelings, contrasting with the regularity of the world depicted on screen. The film's title comes from Juan, who says that in the moonlight, black boys appear blue. With that in mind, many of the film's key moments are bathed in rich blues, whether from the hues of the shot's content, or shimmering neon lights. This cinematic treatment leaves this diminutive urban story feeling grand, Classical and majestic.
At first glance, Moonlight doesn't look like a "gay film". It doesn't trumpet its protagonist's sexuality with any real declaration of intent, but neither does it shy away from the significance his sexuality plays in his development. On initial impressions, the man that Chiron becomes could be seen as being in spite of his sexuality - but it becomes abundantly clear that this could not be further from the truth. Chiron becomes the man he becomes exactly because of others' reactions to the signs of his sexuality. His quietness and withdrawn nature set him apart as different, but Chiron tries desperately to find the balance between wanting to prove himself and wanting to fade into the background. For him, his sexuality has established a dichotomy that seems impossible to solve.
Essentially, this is another movie about lovers kept apart by circumstance, but what sets it apart is its comprehensive exploration of the history that shapes Chiron. In following him from childhood, we are able to see the early seeds of both his sexual and social identities, which will become wholly at odds with one another. Seeing him as a child gives significant weight to the character we see later, who is a real gentle giant with the appearance of a gangster. As a result, we see exactly how an intrinsically good person can become jaded and potentially corrupted by a world intent on destroying them.
Sexuality and race both appear as messy and complicated entities, with neither epitomising the be-all or end-all of who Chiron is; but their impact is real, with all the social tensions that come with them. Streetwise, operatic and at times otherworldly, Moonlight finds wholeness within the complicated mess of a contextual nightmare. Where many may see only deprivation in the concept of a western underclass, this film finds beauty and disarming truth. This may be a "gay film", but its layered thematic tangles are what makes this one of the best damn gay films ever made. A masterpiece in fact.
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