Since its October release, the one film from the independent circuit that has remained a steady presence throughout awards season is Moonlight. The film, inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, won Gotham, New York Film Critics Circle, and Critics Choice awards in addition to securing Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Awards nominations. Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali is currently the frontrunner in this category for his father figure role in the film. Words don’t do justice to the experience of seeing the film. Moonlight is something beautiful and feels like something we haven’t seen before.
The second feature of director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy was his first) follows Chiron, a young Black gay man through his life told in three chapters: Little, Chiron, and Black. He is played by Alex Hibbert (adolescence), Ashton Sanders (high school), and Trevante Rhodes (adult), respectively. He lives with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who is an addict and neglects her son. Little finds solace in a local dealer, Juan (played impeccably by the aforementioned Ali), and his caring girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe in her feature film debut). They become gures of acceptance for Little, who is bullied by his peers for being different, and provide for him a place of refuge. When teenage Chiron arrives on a night where he is unable to stay at home, Teresa reminds him “it’s all love and all pride in this house”.
We see how Chiron’s hardships during his childhood and adolescence shape a facade he uses later as an adult when he is going by his high school nickname: Black. Hardened by his childhood experiences, he has followed into a lifestyle similar to Juan’s. But beneath a guarded front, he is still the introspective soul we’ve seen grow up throughout the film.
What sets Moonlight apart from the other films released this year is the way it portrays masculinity and homosexuality. It is able to take a close and painfully intimate look at Chiron’s struggle with his identity over his formative years and how it affects him in adulthood. In his youth, he is referred to as Little by his peers because of his size and self-effacing personality. It is during this time that he begins to open up to Juan and Teresa, the former telling him that he can take his time figuring out who he is, but only he has the power to do so. By high school, Chiron goes by his first name. As an adult, he goes by Black, the nickname given to him by Kevin when they were young because he is still trying to gure out how to fit into a world that tells him he doesn’t belong. However by the end, he finally has an idea. We see how his experiences shape him but do not define him: Chiron is still able to choose who he is going to be.
In the cinematic realm, Moonlight is one of the most masterfully crafted films of the decade, let alone of the year. Both the film and the play it is adapted from are semi-autobiographical for McCraney, who, like Jenkins, grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. As a result, they tell a deeply personal story that is reflected in every line and every frame of the film. It is done delicately yet hauntingly through masterful cinematography and an intoxicating score to compliment it. Professor Erin Greenwell of the Communication Arts department states, “It’s been a while where I’ve seen a film and been equally giddy about the humanity of the piece AND the technical filmmaking.”
Additionally, some of the strongest aspects of the film are the high caliber performances from the cast. Casting three actors of different ages to play the same protagonist is no easy feat, but Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are able to showcase Chiron’s transformation with a single look in their eyes. So much of the character relies on what he doesn’t say, and the three actors are able to pull it off perfectly. Harris plays Paula on a level we had not yet seen from her. André Holland shines as adult Kevin when he reunites with Black at the end of the film. Rhodes and Holland are incredible together in the film’s final act. Their reunion in Kevin’s apartment is a scene seared forever in the viewer’s mind for the feelings of palpable longing it stirs. No matter how much time has passed, these two people still know who they are and who the other is: they could never forget. “Moonlight was a brilliant cinematic masterpiece that broke almost every rule of film in a dazzlingly amazing fashion,” shares MMC senior Jalen Eugene. “Wonderfully cast, wonderfully directed and amazingly filmed and edited.”
The conversation surrounding this year’s Academy Awards has had La La at the focal point. However, many have recently wondered whether or not our current political climate will knock La La Land out of its lead for Best Picture and as a result be awarded to Moonlight or Hidden Figures due to their more progressive themes. This suggests that the film is only worthy of winning “the top award” due to larger national conversations, as opposed to its artistic merit and the skillful yet emotional execution of the film. This undermines the film by implying that if it were not for its cultural relevance, the film would not be where it is, which is a shame, because the work Jenkins has done with Moonlight is the kind of work that stands the test of time. It’s the type of work that we will look back on for the exemplary way it captures the formation of a young man’s identity during a period of change. It’s hard to fully articulate what it is that makes Moonlight so magical—it’s just something everyone needs to experience for themselves.
Moonlight is currently nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor. It is available to rent or own on VOD, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, and others.