Why Is Everyone In Love With ‘Moonlight’?

"This film sets a new benchmark and will be remembered long after the Academy Awards are done and dusted."

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Last January we got Carol, the reigning champion of LGBTIQ cinema. It’s a movie awash in beauty from its exquisite 1950s period details to the luminescent performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; its most satisfying of endings unshackled itself from traditions and made my heart burst into a million pieces. This was a rare cinematic gift and you shouldn’t be surprised if you see people hailing it the best of the decade a few years from now.

One year later (almost to the day) and audiences are getting another in this seemingly newfound annual tradition of prestigious LGBTIQ film making waves through the American award seasons. Of course, the story of Moonlight couldn’t be further from Carol. Based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary sophomore feature charts the young life of a poor, gay African American boy in Miami, Florida.

Carol was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Moonlight has been nominated for eight including Best Picture and Best Director with Jenkins only the third African American ever nominated, after John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) and Lee Daniels (Precious). If these yearly queer entries that seduce award voters and audiences alike continue to be as good as Carol and Moonlight, then I am here for it.

In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue

Moonlight is a triptych with three different actors performing the same character across three separate moments of the life of Chiron — age eight (miniature Alex Hibbert), later as a teenager (lanky Ashton Sanders), and then finally as adult (hardened and bulked-up Trevante Rhodes). Its observations into the experiences of not just young black men, but young black gay men in a society that is seemingly more intent than ever on keeping them down are not just eye-opening, but relevant and necessary and, unfortunately, all too familiar. That being said, it’s also unlike anything seen before.

Like Dee Rees’ Pariah from 2011 (which is about a black same-sex attracted teenage girl in Brooklyn), Moonlight takes familiar elements of films about both the black and gay experiences and morphs them into something that feels fresh and new. It’s uniquely specific and otherworldly, yet also speaks to many of the universal tribulations of growing up as a minority.

The film is a technical wonder too. Taking inspiration from the title of McCravin’s play, the film’s visual palate is imbued with rich blues that emphasises surreal beauty. It strips the film of racist contexts that inevitably come in a film about race and class, and emphasises how important it is to have stories told my more than just white men.

As cinematographer Bradford Young said in 2014, “I’m never satisfied with the way I see my people photographed in movies”. “I think it comes from a lack of consciousness — if you grew up in a community where you don’t know black people, I wouldn’t suspect you would photograph them in a concerned way.” Moonlight‘s DP James Laxton is unsurprisingly among the film’s Oscar nomination haul.

Scenes of both physical and emotional violence are scored by Nicholas Britell’s delicate music full of strings and piano. It is often elegant, yet frequently jagged and hostile — much like Chiron himself. The editing of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders is poetic too, with its recurring rhythms only coming together in the final third. They ebb and repeat, reminiscent of our own unconscious habits and how important moments in our youth can subconsciously manifest as we grow older — from the way we sleep, to the way we walk and eat.

The minimalism is remarkably refreshing. It would have been easy for a director with more interest in traditional emotional bombast to intertwine the stories, perhaps even hide from audiences that each timeline is the same character. In some ways, it reminded me of Garth Davis’ Lion which also dismissed traditional editing gimmicks. Jenkins and Davis are smarter filmmakers than that, not needing to rely on cheap manipulative tricks, and their films are better for it.

Not What You Expect

Perhaps the film’s most important moment comes in the third instalment when Chiron’s sympathetic friend and one-time sexual partner, Kevin (another recurring presence across the three strands and now played by André Holland), asks “Who is you, man? [You’re] not what I expected” when confronted with the now hulking frame of his old friend. It’s a moment that not only drips with sexual chemistry between the two actors (something casting director Yesi Ramirez just won an award for from the Casting Society of America), but with the weight of a history of social typecasting.

Who Chiron is is a completely different person. He’s a man forced by society to change his body — from the fragile, skinny gawkiness of his teenage years to the physically imposing (the woman in front of me at the screening checked his oft-topless Instagram account out as soon as the credits rolled) drug peddler who wear gold caps on his teeth. But he’s also forced to change how he holds himself and his sexuality.

We’ve seen movies and television about this sort of man before, and one of Moonlight’s strongest assets is the way it refines this character type, subverting the narrative. It’s an appropriate coda given the way the film opens with the pre-teen Chiron being befriended by another subversion of this type. Likely Oscar winner Mahershala Ali plays a drug dealer who offers the bullied boy and his drug-addicted mother (Oscar nominee and Moneypenny in the recent Bond films, Naomie Harris) kindness, sensitivity, and a new home.

I could raise my brow in scepticism that it is the straight male character getting the Oscar attention as opposed to any of the actors who play Chiron — and, it must be said, there are so many great performances within it that it seems everybody has their own distinct favourite — but the character that Ali plays is such a rich wonder. He’s a complex father figure who helps a gay child in a deeply homophobic world while still juggling the ethical quandaries of being a drug dealer; that’s hardly undeserving.

Darkest Before the Dawn

A film like Moonlight — one that is working within so many different spaces — is particularly special because it can mean so many different things to so many different people. As a gay person, I responded strongly to a sequence in which the young Chiron asks what a ‘faggot’ is, curious why the insult would be flung at him but dealing with it matter-of-factly, with the axils and wheels clearly spinning in his head. I responded to the way teenage Chiron walked around with a permanent look of resignation and confusion. He questioned why people hate him so much despite his best efforts to be a part of the furniture (but with nonetheless escalating thoughts of violence). I responded to how quickly adult Chiron floundered when around Kevin — his muscular body unable to truly hide the introspective boy who was never able to organically grow up and experience life.

Somebody else may well respond more strongly to elements of race or class, or perhaps find something more compelling in the mother character or the way it uses Miami on screen in such a powerful way. Whatever you own personal way in to Moonlight, it is a divine work of filmmaking that sets a new benchmark and will be remembered long after the Academy Awards are done and dusted.

And, to swirl back to that earlier question: even if Chiron doesn’t know who he is, by this film’s glorious end it feels as if he might be on his way out of the darkness by embracing everything he’s been taught to fight. As much as it frustrates, that is still an important concept in 2017.

Moonlight is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.