Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriters: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Adapted from: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney (unpublished)
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomiee Harris, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner
Nominations: Picture, Director – Barry Jenkins, Supporting Actor – Mahershala Ali, Supporting Actress – Naomi Harris, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score
Wins: Picture, Supporting Actor – Mahershala Ali, Adapted Screenplay

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be.  Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Juan, Moonlight

There’s poetry in having three actors play the same character in a film about self-discovery.  Beyond the logistical reasons—not every movie can be Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014), after all—it personifies the growth the character goes through in learning who he or she is.  And while the different actor are essentially pieces representing the fragments of the character’s personality, they all fit together in the end, giving us a complete person we can recognize and care about.  Moonlight is a coming-of-age epic that does more in 110 minutes than most films do in twice that.

A paradox exists in storytelling that I think sums up the power and appeal of Moonlight: the more personal the story, the more universal it becomes.  Chiron’s tale is relatable to audiences because it hits upon so many shared themes and circumstances.  Granted, self-identity isn’t all that new of a concept to drama of any medium, but as mentioned in the post about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008), adding a subtle twist helps a story stand apart from the formula. 

In Moonlight, masculinity is explored through various contexts, asking us through most of the film, what makes a man a man?  The first, tellingly casual shot of the film follows Juan as he parks his car and checks in on one of his employees.  Juan has all the cliched trappings of a powerful urban Black man: nice clothes, nice car, gold watch, vigilant eye, etc.  He faces the camera, which effortlessly glides along with him, smooth and composed.  This is a one-off character in many a film, but there’s a profound nuance that Mahershala Ali brings to the character in less than two minutes.  He’s both standoffish and involved, a father-figure to his lackey dealer and the boss.  It’s a performance that only builds in contradictions and surprises as the first act unfolds, but not a second of it ever rings untrue.  Juan has strength, both in appearance and personality, yet it’s his vulnerability and honest when talking to Little that stays with us.

It definitely stays with Little as he becomes Black and is the spitting image of his surrogate father.  However, this introduction to Black is more like the first time we see Little than Juan.  When we first see Little, he’s being chased by a shaky cam, reflecting the chaos he experiences in his life.  With Black, he’s in his car—similar to Juan’s, including the crown décor on the dash—but instead of the suave, floating movement seen with Juan, the camera bumps about with the driving car.  And instead of a single shot, Black’s sequence is made up of five shots, again, emphasizing how even now Black is still building his persona from fragments of life.  The jumpy motion of the car, while not as erratic as the shaky cam in Little’s shot, mirrors that shot in that Black is still trying to find steady footing in himself.  Yes, it’s subtle, and could easily be called “reading into” the film, but that’s the entire point of film studies; it’s no different than analyzing a novel, poem, song, painting, etc.

(Yes, it’s subtle, and could easily be called “reading into” the film, but that’s the entire point of film studies; it’s no different than analyzing a novel, poem, song, painting, etc.)

Moonlight is a film with incredible depth that only becomes more admirable and affecting upon each viewing.  When do we become the person we’re going to be?  How do we know when that happens?  The raw honesty of Little’s/Chiron’s/Black’s journey and struggle rings true because being different is something many of us worry about.  We may not have suffered through the same neglect and bullying, but we have our own neuroses and demons that we must face and fight in order to live life and learn to appreciate the persons we become or are.  Above all, though, for all the obstacles Chiron faces, he still finds hope; and if that’s not uplifting and life-affirming, I don’t know what is.