dir: Barry Jenkins
What a way to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Long after people have forgotten what the flick was about they’ll remember, just like those jokes about Marisa Tomei winning for My Cousin Vinny way back in the day, people will be joking about how it was announced by Bonnie and Clyde, in their final act of defiance, that La La Land had won, when in fact Moonlight was the actual winner.
And it made for quite an awkward speech to cap the night off, from both the people who thought they’d won, and the ones who actually won.
Who cares anyway – the Oscars are meaningless, really, the actual awards don’t mean anything other than marketing.
And yet, it is fucking bizarre that this flick won Best Picture. I have to believe that however the votes from the Academy members were tabulated, I can’t believe that thousands of old white people watched this and thought it was the best flick of the year.
I say this as someone who watched it and liked it, and who thinks it’s absurd that a flick like this can even be compared with something like La La Land. It’s like comparing lasagne to clouds, or frogs to espadrilles.
Moonlight is a beautiful, touching, slow, meandering, exasperating and mostly gentle film. It is almost completely unlike anything else that comes out of America. This is more like a French bildungsroman for a gay character, than anything else I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s so keenly situated in the experience of an African-American boy through three stages of his life that it’s impossible to think of it being set anywhere different.
It follows the trials and tribulations of a boy called Chiron (pronounced Shy-Roan), who’s rarely called that. As a boy he’s practically mute, overwhelmed with sullen misery and desperate fearfulness. He has a crack addict for a mother (Naomie Harris) and is bullied by other children, although at this early stage she’s still holding down a job and surely that bodes well for the future?
Called Little by his bullies, he is pursued on the way home from school, and tries to barricade himself in a crack house, which is thankfully empty at the time. The local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), sees the kid being chased, and takes pity on him.
This opening section is quite strange, we have to admit, because so much is being done with so little, for and around Little. Juan sees something he wants to protect in Little, and tries to encourage him, get him to feel protected, but during this whole section it’s an exaggeration to say if Little speaks more than five words, at least initially. He either stares down in a defeated posture, or glares up at people with his wounded eyes. At all times he looks haunted (as his youngest incarnation).
Juan runs a crew who service a block or two, or “traps” as they refer to them as (not that I should pretend to get the vernacular, because a lot of the time I was wondering what the hell the drug references were), and he keeps a stern eye on his turf, but with Little or his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) he is nothing but gentle. We’re meant to assume that he would have to be brutal in the service of his business, but we never see it. We only see his gentleness to Little, and his hope that he can be some kind of support to him, knowing that he doesn’t have any male role models to look up to.
Of course, the biggest problem in his education of Little, in his desire to teach him what it means to be a black man in contemporary America, in terms of how a male has to represent himself, is that Juan is a drug dealer, and it’s his product being smoked in a glass pipe by Little’s mother and countless other addicts in the area.
It makes for what is often called a conflict of interest. Probably the first sad scene in the flick, well, there are plenty but the saddest for Juan is where he goes to berate some crackheads smoking in proximity to their point of purchase, only to be berated by Little’s mum, who correctly points out to him that he may think he’s all high and mighty, but it’s him directly contributing to the ruination of Little’s family.
Even though Little already seems pretty miserable, it’s when his own mother starts verbally abusing him that he starts to believe the taunts from the lazy shitheads in the neighbourhood or at school. He asks Juan and Teresa what a ‘faggot’ is, seeing as his own mother loudly proclaimed him to be one, and he doesn’t know what it means. Juan and Teresa gently explain something to him, also appreciating that he’s too young for sexual preference to mean anything to him yet.
As such, we have a main character being defined as being ‘something’ before he has any sense of what it could even mean, and of course the callous shitheads around him, including his own mother, are more than happy to tell him what they think he is, and that it is something deserving of their abuse.
It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But this isn’t played out in an overbearing or melodramatic way. I mean there is at least one harsh scene of violence later on, in the middle segment, but mostly these scenes all play out in a manner which I hesitate to call ‘naturalistic’, but which pretty much fits. They all (from the direction to the acting) generally underplay scenes rather than overplay them.
Of course sexuality plays a key role in the film, but lest this sound like a story likely to make the homophobic elements in the audience clutch their pearls in disgust and maybe feel a disturbing fraction of arousal, this is meant to be an aspect of Chiron’s identity, not its sole defining characteristic. And this is, for most of the flick’s length, a kid we’re talking about. A kid with a terrible home life in a hostile environment (the Liberty City projects of Miami, which look like a very cheery locale in which to stab someone to death over their sneakers), who isn’t able to put up the false front growing boys are expected to project, where they can brutalise each other without feeling a thing and can avoid ever expressing a genuine emotion.
The term ‘toxic masculinity’ keeps being bandied about, and it’s hard to not use it yet again, because, hell, growing up for anyone; male, female, genderfluid, LGBTQI or not, is pretty hard. Those teenage years fundamentally…
The film jumps ahead to Chiron’s teenage years, where a different actor looking nothing little Little plays the role. Now, in Chiron’s life, things are thankfully only getting worse. His mother’s addiction is worse, Juan is gone (though Teresa is still there to provide Chiron with some respite from the harshness of the world), and now his vicious mother is also pressuring him for money to fund her stupid habit. Instead of being sad and withdrawn, Chiron is now nervous and fearful, dreading the attention of a bully in his class (a dickhead who has the gall to terrorise Chiron despite looking like Milli and / or Vanilli), where the harsh words and homophobic taunts are being supplemented with threats of serious violence.
Chiron knows that the world demands that he be ‘hard’ but he doesn’t think he can be. He mutters the words the other jerks might say, but deep down he thinks himself too ‘soft’, and cannot imagine any way out of his predicament. We see no indication that he has any hope of academic success or athleticism pulling him out of the projects and the public school system by his bootstraps with hard work and elbow grease and gumption and all that other bullshit, and he figures it’s only a matter of time before he will probably get shot or worse.
There is a real feeling of hopelessness and futility and palpable anxiety in this section. With it, though, comes the possibility of something sweeter. He gets into an awkward conversation with one of his schoolmates Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who is bragging transparently about banging some girl in school and getting detention because of it, but the looks he’s giving Chiron kinda maybe sorta imply something different. His aggressive friendliness perhaps covers his own loneliness, but at the very least Chiron seems intrigued.
Later on when they share a joint on the beach, a beach that comes to have great significance to Chiron throughout his life (it figures in each ‘chapter’, for very different reasons), stuff happens which doesn’t really clarify anything (in terms of defining who these characters really ‘are’), but it at least affords Chiron at least one night of happiness. It might not change much, but he at least gets to have a conversation with one person about how great his sadness is, and how he feels like he could cry himself into the ocean.
In the only scene in the whole film horrible to watch, circumstances contrive to punish Chiron for his happiness, and his alpha male antagonist dreadlocked bumbarass bastard of a bully peer pressures Kevin into brutalising Chiron before the jerk and all his mates jump in to stomp poor Chiron. This leads to a scene I wish was harder to watch (in that it is perversely satisfying) where Chiron does exactly what the world tells him a ‘man’ should do.
Needless to say, the world then punishes him for it. Mixed messages or what?
The last section, unsurprisingly, called Black (being Kevin’s nickname for Chiron, but now the name that Chiron goes by), we see Chiron transformed into the man his environment, his peers all demanded he had to be. As he’s introduced as an adult (now played by Trevante Rhodes), he seems awfully familiar: it’s not teenage Chiron he reminds us of, or his even younger self, it’s just that he has moulded himself completely into Juan, complete with do-rag on his head, a crown on the dashboard of his car, and a manner none should fuck with. And abs on top of abs, like, extra abs and stuff.
The man inside, though, hasn’t changed as much, and looks to the past with longing. A chance phonecall from Kevin leads to a situation very different from the one I thought was going to happen, what with the lifestyle involved, the gun, the potential for violence and such.
No, none of that. That last section, most of which is a meeting at the diner where Kevin works, is stretched taut with all sorts of different levels of tension. People either say lots or, especially in Black’s case, very little if anything at all. He is, despite his magnificent physique, afraid of the world falling apart if too many words, or the wrong words, were to fall out of his mouth.
And yet clearly there is something he wants to say, or something he wants to hear, and we’re just going to have to wait patiently for it to come, in its own good time.
Kevin is nervous, and we’re not entirely sure why. He too did something dumb in his youth but as an adult has turned his life around, and when he hears that Black is running ‘traps’ like Juan was in their youth, he’s horrified, but also convinced that this isn’t the ‘real’ Chiron, that this is a false self he’s created in reaction to a cruel world. This isn't the 'real' him, he tells him, with such certainty.
I had to think during that bit, well, how the fuck would you know, Kevin, you easily persuaded unfaithful piece of shit? Plus, who didn’t remember about Omar Little from The Wire? He was perfectly capable of killing drug dealers and stealing their money and no closet no matter how fabulous could ever contained him.
Omar coming, indeed.
But the film agrees with Kevin, and though nothing is spelled out (a lot in this flick is left for us to imagine, which maybe is to its benefit) we’re meant to hope that there is something more to life and to their definitions of manhood that what they grew up with.
It’s impossible to say what audience this flick really was made for, or even what the flick really is. It’s not at all pretending to be a social realist feature (or maybe it is, maybe I’ve got no clues), but it’s certainly not trying to be a crime flick about African-American life in the projects or anything like that. It feels pretty personal, and since it’s a semi-autobiographical story that was first put out as a play Black Boys Look Blue in Moonlight, well, yes, I guess it says something about someone’s life growing up.
At the very least, since it is more about defining oneself, about the confusion of growing up, it’s definitely got more in common with the films of Terence Davies or Andre Techine (think gay coming of age stories) that it does with Boyz in the Hood. And that’s in the flick’s favour. Its themes are universal and cross cultural and across gender preference lines, because, in the end, who can’t relate to longing, to wondering what one’s life would have been like if that one crucial thing had gone differently, if that one person that tormented / blessed one’s life had done things differently?
Maybe it has a happy ending, but is there not a keen sadness, crucial to so many dramas and romances where the star-crossed are kept apart by circumstance and their own fear, with an overwhelming sense of waste, of all that time that could have been better spent, if people had just done the right thing for themselves, and each other?
Beautifully acted, beautifully directed, the flick is a joy to watch and feel, and profoundly sad as well. Some situations can’t be resolved, actions by family can’t be taken back, and thankfully there’s no magical solution when mother and son try to awkwardly forgive each other for stuff that is unforgivable. I think my heart broke a few times watching this flick, which makes me even more surprised that it was rewarded as much as it was. Movies this quiet and this gentle don't usually get noticed.
Mahershala Ali won some award for his portrayal of Juan, and he probably deserved even more awards, because he is amazing to watch in anything. But in some ways he's so commanding and magnetic it doesn't really matter what role he's playing or how long he's in a flick. Every scene he's in, whether it's copping abuse from Chiron's mum and taking it stoically, or the amazing scene where he teaches Chiron to swim, is magnificent. All of the Chirons did a good job showing the boy and then the man, but the Kevins were great too. The last Chiron is so quiet, and so muscly that it's almost frightening, but thankfully the gentleness comes through as much as the uncertainty about what the point of being a man is all about (as if any of us really know).
I don't know if it was the best film of last year, but I do know it was a pretty great one, surprisingly chaste, but also surprisingly romantic. There is much to love about this film.
8 times one wonders whether all boys look blue in moonlight, and not just the ones in this movie out of 10
"Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world." - Moonlight