Moonlight Film Review and Analysis
[I was certain that I would be waiting until March or even April before I could watch Moonlight. It arrived in theaters here in Tulsa for a week around Thanksgiving before being pulled. That’s not atypical for smaller releases, but I have to say that I really enjoy how theaters have started to bring back Oscar nominated films in February. It’s been a trend in the past few years and one that I’m all for. Even better, depending on theaters near you, look for a Oscar bundle pack that allows you to watch every Oscar nominated film in a weeklong period. I’ve noticed that Cinemark or AMC usually run this promotion every February, so if there are films you haven’t seen, it’s a good deal.
Suffice to say, Moonlight was brought back to the screens at Circle Cinema for limited showings and it immediately took precedence over all the other Best Picture nominees as my must next see film.]
SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR MOONLIGHT BELOW
Moonlight follows Chiron, an African American living in a rough neighborhood of Miami. Bullied at an early age and seemingly outcast, Chiron knows he doesn’t fit in because of his sexuality. He hardly speaks to anyone, has no group of friends, and has a deteriorating home life when his mother descends into drug use. Chiron finds refuge in a drug dealer named Juan, who has profound and lasting effects on the trajectory of this young boy’s life.
The first section of the film, titled “i. Little”, is the strongest part of the film from start to finish. A large part of this is from the performance of drug dealer Juan (played by Mahershala Ali). Juan is the father figure that Chiron never had. Juan genuinely cares for and looks after Chiron, as he and his girlfriend give him a place to sleep at night when circumstances prevent him from going to his real home. He first finds Chiron holed up in an abandoned building, as he had just run away from a group of kids trying to beat him up. From the moment they meet, Juan is incredibly patient and caring for Chiron. It begs the question, what does Juan see in Chiron? Why is he so determined to look after this kid?
Juan at face value is a drug dealer and despite his occupation, he defies the stereotype and image most would hold against him. In a particularly telling scene, Juan takes Chiron back to his home after looking out for him the previous night. When Chiron’s mother sees Juan, she quickly pulls him away from him. She fears Juan, projecting that he’s a dangerous drug dealer that would be a bad influence for her son. In the context for the entire film, this couldn’t be further from the truth (not to mention ironic all things considered). Chiron’s mother spirals into drug use and is anything but a reliable parental figure. On the flipside, Juan and Teresa, provide the stability that Chiron needs.
One of the most important scenes in the film comes when Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. The scene is superb visually because it perfectly encapsulates the life that Chiron is about to have. If he doesn’t learn how to ride out the incoming waves, it will swallow him up whole and consume him. He has to learn how to swim in order to face the waves (challenges) that are about to come his way. More importantly, crucial dialogue occurs right after this. Juan turns to Chiron and tells him “at some point you got to decide for yourself who you’re going to be”. It’s a powerful question that helps shape the entire film. Who is Chiron going to be when he grows up? Will he carve his own path or merely mimic those around him?
An equally powerful scene is when Chiron asks Juan “am I a faggot?” Right before he responds to him he fully, Juan shakes his head and says “No… no…”. You expect the next words out of his mouth to be “you’re not a faggot”. Barry Jenkins knows the audience would expect this and sublimely has Juan fire back “you could be gay, but you ain’t going to let anyone call you no faggot”. For all the ill perceived activities that society would slight Juan for, his unquestioned acceptance of Chiron fleshes out the depth of his character. It’s revealed during this scene why he’s attached himself to Chiron, as his own mother seemingly struggled with drugs and was non-existent in his life. The real sucker-punch comes at the end, when Chiron asks Juan if he sells drugs, and if his mother consumes them. It’s a breaking moment acted with precision by Mahershala Ali, and perfectly caps what might be the best scene in a film from 2016.
[I suggest listening to this scene using headphones, as the audio is quiet]
Mahershala Ali’s performance lived up to the hype. He absolutely steals the movie for the limited time that he’s in it. I was legitimately bummed halfway through the second act when I came to the realization we wouldn’t be seeing him again. When the Oscars roll around at the end of February, it’s hard not to imagine him winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor over Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water.
I think Barry Jenkins masterfully used the cinematography, particularly in the scene where the large group of kids are wrestling out in the field. Reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s cinematography, it’s a very beautiful scene to look at, and one that invokes a sense of intimacy and vividness (particularly in the one on one with Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin). There’s a conveyed emotion of closeness in the wrestling scene that signifies a deeper sexual awakening. This is very evident in the closeups of Chiron and his friend laying on the ground and looking up at the sky. There a couple of closeups that focus on their breathing, mimicking movies that depict couples that just had sex laying in bed. Jenkins never hits the audience over the head with these moments, but instead opts for a surreptitious tone.
In the second act, “ii. Chiron”, we find Chiron in High School, where it’s damn apparent that many are aware of his homosexuality. He’s targeted and bullied by a fellow classmate, Terrel. At a surface level, Terrel is the stereotype for what is expected for an African American male growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. He is masculinity personified and on a deeper level signifies the internal battle Chiron is facing. Does he give into societies standards of what a man is? Or does he recognize his innermost desires? The climax occurs on the beach when childhood friend Kevin meets him on the beach and they share a blunt. Chiron’s first sexual experience brings temporary peace and balance. It gives Chiron the answer he’s hoped for: he can find acceptance for who he is.
Unfortunately this is short lived when Terrel forces Kevin to replay a childhood game that singles out a single person to be beaten up. Terrel tells Kevin to punch Chiron, to which he begrudgingly agrees. This is promptly when Chiron’s world comes crashing down around him. Society has dictated that who he is as a person is not welcome. When Chiron assaults Terrel in school the next day, it in effect sends him in exile from the place he grew up. The decision has been made for Chiron: this neighborhood won’t accept you for who you are. When push comes to shove, the people who accept you for you are (Kevin) will turn on you for their own survival. It’s a difficult question that Chiron asks himself: if my home won’t accept me, is there anywhere I can go that will?
The final act is aptly named “iii. Black”. Here we see Chiron in adulthood and nearly unrecognizable. A great casting decision as my first reaction was “wait, is that really him?”. And it’s true, this isn’t Chiron at all, it’s Juan reincarnate. The fight and subsequent arrest at the end of act two is the world eating up Chiron and spitting him back out. Now, he’s a drug dealer in Atlanta. Every little detail of Chiron’s life is a complete 180 from the Chiron we see in the first two acts. The importance of Juan’s character, although only appearing in the first act, is deeply felt in the final act of the film. In that entire first act, we only see Chiron speak to Juan. He remained silent as a monk to every other adult figure around him. It’s absolutely no wonder that we see him dressed very similar to Juan. He wears a do-rag, has the same ear piercings, and has the same profession as Juan. He’s followed in the footsteps of the father he never had. There are other small details the beckon his old life back in Miami too. Chiron still sticks his face in cold water, akin to the day when Kevin beat him up. Speaking of Kevin, there are two aspects of his importance that have followed Chiron to Atlanta. The first is the car that Chiron drives, which is the same muscle type car that Kevin drove around. Secondly, and most importantly, is the name he goes by in Atlanta: Black. A name, which you guessed it, is what Kevin used to call him.
The name “Black” serves a further purpose. I feel though Barry Jenkins titled this section “Black” because he asks the question, “what is it to be black?”. Chiron’s idea of being black is being a hardened drug dealer. Jenkins dictates that this how society molds the life of a black man, whether it’s truly him or not.
Every aspect of Chiron’s persona, otherwise, is a false front. This is no more apparent in the grill that he wears. When he finally returns to Miami to reconnect with Kevin, he sees right through his act. Kevin knows that the gold teeth Chiron wears are all for show, because he’s one of the few people that sees him past his exoskeleton. Kevin tells him to “take those damn grills out, that’s not who you are”. When Chiron is offered alcohol at dinner from Kevin, he initially rejects it because “he can’t really taste it”. Any sort of indulgence is completely missing. The rejection of alcohol can be interpreted in two ways: the first is suppression and the second is isolation. He rejects the idea of alcohol because of his suppressed sexuality will rise up. The notion of a gay lifestyle is one that has been given up. This meant any indulgence or way for him to have those feelings couldn’t be addressed, it had to be forgotten. Secondly, the rejection of alcohol means something on a philosophical level: isolation. The lack of taste to me speaks that he can’t enjoy any of life’s pleasures. He mentions to Kevin that he only drinks water, the most “pure” drink one can have. The isolation of Atlanta has brought this hardened exterior. The hardened exterior is symbolized through his massive body build, a far cry from the slender, undersized and vulnerable body he had in childhood. It’s a personal war propagated so that nobody who looks at him would dare question his sexuality.
The ending of Moonlight can leave people a little unfulfilled. I thought it was a perfect ending. Chiron looks to Kevin and mentions that he’s the only other person who had ever touched him, and that he hasn’t had a sexual experience since. It would have been disingenuous and cheap to have it end on a sex scene. Instead, we simply see Kevin holding Chiron as the screen fades to black. I felt it was certainly a more realistic ending. Chiron isn’t going to open up overnight or take part in some crazy fueled sex. He’s a man that’s completely locked himself up from everyone around him for the majority of his life. The final scene to me signified hope for Chiron. He’s found someone that accepts him for who he is, and willing to take the time for him. A sex scene at the end would reek of him being used for Kevin’s gain.
When people read or talk about Moonlight, I think it’s easy to talk about it in terms of sexuality. This isn’t to say that Moonlight doesn’t deal with sexuality obviously, but I do think it’s a slight disservice to label it as a purely sexual film. Moonlight is more about Chiron’s journey to find out who he is: a black man who struggles to come to terms with his sexuality in a society that constantly challenges him and at times out-right rejects him. Moonlight questions masculinity and societal traditions that are projected onto youthful blacks. Typically coming-of-age films deal with young people facing the hard realities of life, but I have a hard time of thinking of coming-of-age films that deal with the problems minorities face. If Moonlight’s success is anything to go off on, it certainly will be the first of many.
I could probably write another 1,000 words on Moonlight. I didn’t even touch on the film’s vivid use of color or it’s impressive cinematography and carefully crafted soundtrack. Yet, before I wrap this up, Barry Jenkins has been vocal in his admiration for Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai (one of my all time favorite directors). This video I just happen to find today perfectly captures the admiration for Kar-wai.
If Barry Jenkins even comes close to Wong Kar-wai’s level of filmmaking, we’d be incredibly lucky. If Moonlight is anything to go by, it’s surely a step in the right direction.