I don’t want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It’s not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So… here goes:
#oscarssowhite made it “important” (I use that in air quotes, but I do mean it seriously) to have films with broader representation receive serious attention. After the Sundance blitz, The Birth of a Nation seemed like it was going to be the film that would do that. (Or, a film, because one really isn’t enough… but I guess it’s a start.) It didn’t even seem to really relate to the quality of the movie itself, which by many accounts is Fine, but certainly not the masterpiece that the initial buzz would have suggested. And ultimately, it didn’t matter, because the conduct of its writer/director/star overshadowed the whole thing. That can and will be debated for a while yet (for what it’s worth: I can’t divorce art from the artist, and I will not be seeing The Birth of a Nation as a result), but it left a gaping hole in the Oscar race in more ways than one.
The “diversity” buzz turned to Moonlight, not as a frontrunner for Best Picture, necessarily, but as a film that would certainly get its due with a Best Picture nomination and some awards elsewhere. In reality, going into the theater, that was all I knew. It was a film that could give at least a modicum of diversity. The man I sat next to at the screening asked me if I was excited. I said, “Yeah. Are you?” He said, “As a black gay man, I’m glad to be getting some representation.” So now I knew it dealt with LGBT issues as well. So now, it’s a film that’s doubly “important” (air quotes again; still mean it seriously).
But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Moonlight may be a lot of things, representing a lot of things. But it is a narrative film first and foremost, and it has to succeed on that level before it can be anything else.
And boy howdy does it succeed.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Release Date: October 21st, 2016
Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him “Little.” In part 2, he’s a teenager; one person calls him “Black.” In part 3, he’s in his late 20s; everyone calls him “Black” now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: “This is the story of a lifetime.” That’s a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it’s more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone’s lifetime. But that’s not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, “That looks really cool.” I read that tagline and think, “That sounds really bland.” Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later).
All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it’s less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that’s intentional, that it’s supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he’s a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron’s development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he’s on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don’t think it will), Ali’s performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he’s now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid’s mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so.
Juan isn’t in Part 2 (and he’s not really in Part 3, but he’s also totally in Part 3). He’s dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There’s no, “Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened].” In fact, we don’t ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the “I haven’t seen her since the funeral” and the “This is my house.” There’s nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience’s intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception.
That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: “That sounds really bland.” While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called “bland,” a case could be made that it feels oddly “typical.” Chiron’s story is, really, not a new one. I’ve long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it’s a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.
And yet, it didn’t matter. In fact, I’d argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we’ve seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I’ve discussed how seeing a different culture’s take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn’t really thinking about it within our borders, but that’s a matter of my own blindness.
The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can’t grasp. I don’t believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so… vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it’s a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can’t succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.)
And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight‘s shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn’t get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well… I can’t even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that’s been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker’s past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film’s quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question.
When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. “Beautiful,” he answered.
Nothing else needed to be said.