Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Naoime Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: February 10th
Black and gay? It’d easy to see the Oscar reaction to Moonlight as a knee-jerk tokenism response to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite troubles, and the fact that we’re all still a bit “really??” every time we remember that the timeless Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to the shockingly dated Crash. At least it would have been easy were it not for the fact that Moonlight – which is up against the far more mainstream emotional journeys within La La Land and Manchester by the Sea – is packing such a powerful and prescient punch.
Broken down into three time periods of one young man, each time we revisit he’s given himself a different name — 9-year-old Little (Alex R. Hibbert), 16-year-old Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and the fully grown Black (Trevante Rhodes) — showing the singular arc of a boy growing up in Miami without the emotional support required to become the man he should have become, but the three-act tragedy of the man he became instead.
With an abusive and drug-addicted mother (a career best by Naomie Harris), he instead finds harbour with a sensitive drug-dealer (the awards-worthy Mahershala Ali) and his loving wife (an equally impressive Janelle Monáe). Even from his young age, Little is aware that he lacks a common ground with other boys his age, and in his teens seems fully aware of it as Chiron. Bullied at every turn, he finds a flicker of solace with the equally as sexually confused Kevin (at this point played by excellent newcomer Jharrel Jerome), who is much better at hiding his true self in the emotionally heightened battlefield of high school.
Once it gets to the third act, a realisation sets in; Moonlight isn’t as revelatory as it’d like you to think that it is. Seeing the man that Little and Chiron ultimately develops into, the parallels with Omar from The Wire become apparent, and that was a story from over 15 years ago. Plus, the whole “look at his life, of course he became a criminal” aspect is a little too easy-drama, even if it is fundamentally effective.
Which isn’t to say that the third act falls apart – if anything the opposite is true. Rhodes is absolutely magnetic as the grown man who has concealed who he really is so well and for so long that he is basically all surface emotions, destined to never look inwards again. Writer/director Barry Jenkins sprinkles some moments of beauty throughout the three ages – Little being taught how to swim, Chiron’s first sexual experience, Black’s first proper grown-up conversation with his struggling mother – and clearly has a prodigious knack for scalpel-sharp emotional insights and thoughtfully, tactfully framing the drama (the beautifully simple cinematography is provided by James Laxton, best known for recent Kevin Smith flops Tusk and Yoga Hosers, proving eternally the old saying “we all gotta start somewhere…”).
While the topics aren’t universal, they are universally acknowledged as being frontlines in the current political climate. One man’s personal struggle in Miami suddenly becomes a number of communities plight in Trump’s America. Is it possible to disassociate this movie from 2017 and still enjoy it? Absolutely, but why would you want to? Racism, homophobia and being forced into a life of crime are everywhere, and Moonlight casts a warm, glowing light in that direction, showing us even the faintest sliver of hope.
Black and gay and very, very good.