Directed by Barry Jenkins
In 2014, “12 Years a Slave” became the first (and still only) Best Picture recipient to focus primarily on the experiences of African-Americans. It was a long-overdue accomplishment. Soon, though, it might be getting some company. Playwright Tarell McCraney wrote his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” using his own life experiences as inspiration. Now, drawing from McCraney’s story, director Barry Jenkins brings “Moonlight” to the screen—a coming of age movie like none we’ve ever seen.
A young black kid living with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) in Miami, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) struggles to make friends. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is a drug dealer who treats him to dinner every once in a while and tells him to always be true to himself. In high school, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggles with bullies and the constant stress of his mom trying to get her next fix. But as he explores his budding sexuality, a moment with a classmate will leave him struggling to cope with his closet lifestyle. Flash forward about a decade, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has changed dramatically, but not in ways you might expect. A chance encounter with his old classmate will bring back memories that he’s repressed for years.
“Moonlight” strives, I think, to normalize homosexuality in a community that hasn’t come around so quickly to it. The internalized homophobia and absurd societal standards for masculinity that plague our country are felt perhaps most notably among African-Americans, especially black men. “Moonlight” is a courageous and important effort on Jenkins’ behalf to try to show that unique experience not just during one time in Chiron’s life but in three. It shines a light on those struggles in an effort to educate the populace. But it’s not enough that “Moonlight” is unique. After that great framework was in place, Jenkins surrounded himself with the team that would bring the story to life. Cinematographer James Laxton uses tracking shots and unique angles to bring an intimate touch to this highly personal story. In the music department, Nicholas Britell would be one of a couple people who helped bring “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight” to life—producer Brad Pitt is another. In a movie with long periods of stillness like “Moonlight,” music is ever-important.
Mahershala Ali is brilliant in everything he does, but the “House of Cards” actor brings something special and unexpected to his smaller role here. The Academy likes to have a decent amount of screen time from which to judge a performance, but in Ali’s case I think they’ll have enough to make a judgment. In her first appearance on the big screen, Janelle Monae surprises with a relatable, touching performance. Her starring role in “Hidden Figures” has higher expectations, now. All three actors who play Chiron play him the same way. That’s rare. Give credit to the actors, but also Jenkins—getting exactly the performances he needed to make Chiron a thoroughly consistent character in three different stages of life. “Moonlight” is the best, most human drama of the year. Anyone would be mistaken to cast it off as another coming of age story. It’s so much more.