Barry Jenkins’ sure-to-be Oscar darling Moonlight shows a child’s lifetime through the struggles of a Miami drug war, the internal struggle of sexuality and the forever long journey for our self defiance.
Much like a stage production, the opening is the critical make or break moment. It’s the opportunity a filmmaker has to define their film’s setting and tone, while taking us inside the head of our character to study – all of which is sure to be explained in some film production class somewhere. Jenkins however, doesn’t use this moment to make himself the star saying “look upon my work as director”, but instead opens his film like the work of a humble, loving poet. His message smooth and clear as the soft twang of Boris Gardiner says those striking words: “Every N**ga Is A Star”. A welcoming open arms with a tinge of something harsh, which is all too familiar with life itself, isn’t it? Moonlight being the tale of a lost child growing into a malleable man in need of loving words and someone there to make them matter. The story of his lifetime more so a cinematic poem of finding love when there’s so much hate in the world.
Jenkins, basing this off Tarell Alvin McCraney’s own stage production, also structures his film as though it were a poem. The journey broken up into three distinct moments in a life when all those around him beat him into one shape or another. From a reluctant, curious child known as Little (Alex R. Hibbert), a vulnerable, bully-enduring boy named Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and a hardened persona of man by the name of Black (Trevante Rhodes), each one forced to harshly fit expectations in order to survive. While any other filmmaker would give that tale a more showy approach and dramatise it for dramatisation sake, Jenkins finds a great balance between the quiet, natural, and intimate, with the dreamlike and colourful blues of James Laxton’s beautiful cinematography.
The stand-out performances coming from Oscar contenders Mahershala Ali as Juan, the father figure drug dealer with a heart of gold; Naomie Harris, Chiron’s broken, addict mother that’s too accurate a portrayal it will just sadden you; and André Holland as Kevin, the charismatic opposite to Chiron that gives this despair-ridden romance so much more heart. Chiron’s interactions range from a tense vulnerability to an emotional ache, Jenkins knowing when to step back to let his actors convey so much with just bits of dialogue, hesitant movements and moments of standstill.
Moonlight is a movie you should prepare yourself for emotionally and rewatch to fully invest yourself in this closed off journey for love. It’s a slow and subtle film and isn’t something to be seen randomly any other day, but more so an event to work yourself up to. There’s a tenderness and acceptance in homosexual cinema that’s so lovely to see be brought to light, and while I wasn’t crying like the majority of the audience, this movie is certainly a star contender this season.
In an interview, Barry Jenkins said that the three actors who play Chiron never met during production. He wanted each of them to build their own persona of Chiron during their respective segments, with no influence from the other portrayals. The same technique was used with the actors who play Kevin.