One of the best Best Picture winners in Oscar history, Barry Jenkins’ coming of age tale follows Chiron, a young black man coming to terms with his homosexuality through three key stages in his life. Split into three segments: Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes), we follow Chiron’s ascendence from bullied child to a successful drug dealer. Sadly, the infamous confusion between the true winner of the Best Picture award when La La Land was wrongly announced. Moonlight’s win was monumental for being the first film to openly discuss themes of homosexuality as well as featuring a predominantly black cast. Aside from its record-breaking and importance in film history, it holds merit as a captivating piece of cinema with innovative direction, emotionally charged writing and characters that hold influence for the entirety of the film despite limited screen time. This is a film that will be remembered for the ages.
It’s incredible that this is Barry Jenkins’ debut feature. It is one of the best debuts in film history and caused a lot of hype going into awards season. Jenkins’ vision comes across fantastically by presenting Chiron as an outsider in his own community. This is important because Chiron’s story is ultimately about being in a minority within a minority (gay within the black community). Moonlight is made up of shorter scenes that give us a glimpse into Chiron’s life. Following Chiron limits our view of the world at large but we still get the struggles across as we see him attending high school and being badly bullied. Jenkins doesn’t feel the need to explain a character’s absence and allows this to come out naturally in the script. Jenkins co-wrote the play with Tarell Alvin McCraney based on the latter’s unperformed play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Together they reflected on their upbringings in Miami and were able to apply their own experiences into the script to ensure that it was as real and human as can be. Because of the authenticity and the knowledge of the area and its people, Moonlight doesn’t fall into the trap of including stereotypes that are often seen in films.
The cast all do a superb job of telling Chiron’s story, particularly Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing at a young age. Juan is living with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) and the two act as surrogate parents as Chiron’s mother becomes more abusive and neglectful. Juan subverts the tropes that drug dealers are given in film. He is wise, thoughtful and considerate. More importantly, he is sensitive and completely understanding Chiron’s situation almost immediately. Despite only featuring in the first part of the film before his untimely death, Juan’s presence is felt through the film. Ali’s performance is one of tenderness and paternity. What also comes across is Juan’s confidence in himself and his identity. Jenkins is subverting stereotypes and showing a perspective that is needed and long overdue.
The score by Nicholas Britell is among the best of the century so far. The soundtrack is brilliant mix of rap, classical excerpts from composers such as Mozart and original music. The original music is truly stunning with beautiful use of single violin solos to exemplify Chiron’s loneliness. What Britell does is give a separate theme for the three Chirons we see in the film. The themes aren’t distinctly different but feel like an evolution through the film until we get to Black’s theme much like Chiron’s development and understanding of his own self. At times it feels as if the music reflects Chiron himself in the specific scenes as the pace quickens in moments of adrenaline and then eases off in moments of relaxation. Chiron and the music go hand in hand making the music an entire experience through Chiron’s eyes.
Moonlight is a film that stays with you and one that is difficult to forget. It doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of modern society and the struggles that minorities face. Jenkins solidified himself as one to watch with this film and followed it up with the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk. Moonlight is truly in a league of its own and has brought a new voice to cinema that is needed and valid. Scenes in which Chiron is rejected by his own mother (Naomie Harris), an abusive drug-addict, are revealed bit by bit as they coincide with Chiron’s own understanding of the situation. As his mother uses homophobic slurs against him, Chiron too becomes accustomed to that way of thinking and distances himself from his desires as an adult. Moonlight is one of those films that you can watch time and time again and find something to admire while reaping in the rewards of this cinematic masterpiece. It’s not often when smaller films are exposed to high levels of publicity but Moonlight thoroughly deserves it and is such an important film to note in the way of diversity in its cast and crew, providing a new perspective and a new wave of films that make way for different cultures told by those from those cultures.
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