By Anthony Robles
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be.”
Eight years after his feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, director and co-screenwriter Barry Jenkins returned to the screen last year with his sophomore effort Moonlight. Lavished in praise, the film won Best Motion Picture – Drama at last month’s Golden Globes ceremony and was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film traces the journey of Chiron, a gay black man growing up in the drug-ridden Miami neighborhood Liberty City, at three different stages in his life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The first act sees Chiron played by newcomer Alex Hibbert, who meets drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) after seeking refuge from a group of bullies in an abandoned house. Emotionally abused at home by his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and bullied at school, Chiron’s sole source of friendship comes from Kevin, played by Jaden Piner. This first act benefits immensely from Ali’s presence, who takes every convention that films have about drug dealers and completely subverts them. Juan serves as a mentor, a father figure for the fatherless Chiron who becomes invested in his well-being. Throughout this stage, Jenkins crafts beautiful, intimate moments between Juan and Chiron that demonstrate the power of visual storytelling over exposition. We do not learn about Jenkins’ characters from the way they talk and the words they use, but from the way they react to the world and those around them.
The second act sees Chiron played by Ashton Sanders, as a teenager in high school who faces daily homophobic discrimination from his peers. While Chiron remains good friends with Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, his other relationships are in various states of disarray. In this act, Jenkins marries the awkward social malaise of adolescence with themes of self-discovery and sexual awakening to striking effect. While the first act benefited strongly from the Ali’s performance, the second act reaches greatness on the weight of Sanders’ performance alone. Sanders’ Chiron is less shy than Hibbert’s, but no less adept at using his facial expressions to convey feelings of loneliness and longing, repression and desire. By allowing us to peer into the lives of these characters, Jenkins allows us to connect with them on an individual level. The emotions these characters feel are universal, human, for they ache to be loved and accepted. These emotions come to a head in a series of scenes that are shocking, stunning, and altogether poetic, which left me breathless.
The final act sees Chiron played by Trevante Rhodes as an adult, a decade after the second act’s denouement. Removed from the trappings of his upbringing, Chiron returns to Miami after receiving a call from Kevin, now played by André Holland. The act culminates in a devastating and yet ultimately hopeful way, the final scene proving that cinema still possesses the power to provide powerful cathartic releases that touch the heart and move the soul. While this act moves at a slower pace than the first two, Jenkins’ decision allows the act to build up to this potent moment without sacrificing the authenticity of the work. His film works because it not only serves as an exploration of one man’s life, but as a sociocultural observation of Liberty City itself. By not only grappling with sexuality and issues of identity, but the difficulties that impoverished communities face daily, Jenkins gives moviegoers a look at lives that are regrettably underrepresented in today’s cinema.
As for the film’s technical aspects, Moonlight’s cinematography remains superb throughout, with cinematographer James Laxton pouring beauty into every frame of the film. Composer Nicholas Britell’s contribution does not go unnoticed either, for his score adds another layer of emotional depth that further heightens the feelings associated with each passing scene. Meanwhile, the dual editing team of Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon work together brilliantly to create a fluid, graceful viewing experience that lets the character’s facial expressions do the heavy lifting to superb effect.
That’s not to say that Jenkins has directed the perfect film. The first act of the film feels a bit uneven, but Mahershala Ali’s scene-stealing performance serves as the glue that keeps it together. Additionally, one cannot help but wonder about the plot details that are omitted as the film jumps forward in time. While what Jenkins presents on the screen is nonetheless brilliant, the missing details prevent the film from presenting the most thorough depiction of these characters.
In the end, however, these flaws are superseded by the overall quality of Jenkins’ work. The film serves as an illuminating experience directed with an assured hand and populated by full-bodied characters and the talented cadre of actors that expertly bring them to life. Jenkins adroitly allows the film to serve as a meditation on love and forgiveness, while reminding us of the feelings that bind us all as human beings. His film works because it feels so refreshingly true and earnestly tender, free from the conventions of mainstream Hollywood. And lastly, the film also serves as a frank reminder of the issues that underrepresented communities face every day, while simultaneously charting the life of a gay black man that struggles to find himself amidst the ever-changing societal landscape of southern Florida. And for that reason alone, it is not only important viewing, but essential viewing.
Rating: 10 out of 10 – Masterpiece
Anthony Robles is a ’20 from Dallas hoping to double major in film and economics. On campus, he is a news writer for The Dartmouth, attends weekly Dartmouth Film Society meetings and is excited to be an Arts Ambassador this term!