This year’s awards season has truly been a better reflection of how diverse the arts talents really are. With no need for the ‘Oscars So White’ hashtag, different races, religions, and sexualities are beginning to receive the roles and on screen portrayals they deserve. With all this in mind it is great to celebrate a film that not only boasts a brilliant black cast but also deals with the struggles of sexuality.
Of all the films most celebrated on the award circuit was Moonlight and the Oscar winner is certainly the most poignant and powerful. A coming of age story set against a rough Miami backdrop. Yet in writer/director Barry Jenkins hands this is a beautiful, brutally human story in an inhuman world.
Moonlight chronicles three time periods of Chiron’s life, a young black boy growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. From a young, isolated boy nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), he struggles with a drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris), but finds a mentor amongst his pain in Juan (Mahershala Ali). We then meet Chiron as a frightened teenager (Ashton Sanders), whose mother’s addiction has spiralled deeper. His tormentors are now aggressive, violent young men as he struggles to concede who he is. Finally, we meet Chiron as ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes), an imposing, powerful but fractured and scarred man. When his past begins to creep back into his life, can he truly accept who he is and live life on his own terms?
Moonlight is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, whose previous directing efforts include low budget Medicine for Melancholy. The film in based on the non-produced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the same neighbourhood and had mothers with drug addiction. The two have used their own experiences to bring an authenticity to the work.
For all the complex issues and topics that Moonlight covers, this is a simple and human story. This is the story of a boy and how those around him shape the course of his life. The good, the bad, and the redeemable. Chiron’s race, social class and sexuality all play a role in how he is treated and examine the expanded world around him.
The three act, time jump structure allows us to engage with one character throughout his life. Each chapter has its joys and heartaches and the film will leave audiences in tears of both beauty and pain. Although simple, the film never falters on engaging with its audiences. You are guided along as a viewer to such dark and intimate moments you feel no one should see.
Jenkins may be a rookie director but his style is so fluid and natural you would have never guessed. His use of camera work as well as colour to express emotions and narrative are brilliant. He mixes the darker, grittier backdrop of Miami with beautiful sunsets and soft beaches. The film may be brutal but beauty and compassion feel always on the horizon in the world that Jenkins has painted here.
Despite having a strong soundtrack, that includes cultural musical and score to enhance mood, tone and context, the films strongest technique is its use of silence. The camera lingers over scenes and the actors faces where nothing is said but so much is felt and communicated. The silence works so vividly perhaps because the cast have not just emotive faces but chemistry together too.
Lifting this unflinching and beautiful story even higher than its strong narrative and visuals is its cast. Despite Chiron being played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders,) you never question this is the same man. Each infuse the character with unique traits yet retain his vulnerability and gentleness. This is the awakening of a character through three brilliant and understated actors. In young Hibbert we meet a confused and curious young boy isolated from his peers and mother. In teenage Chiron, Sanders portrays a frightened and introverted young man with no one to guide his actions. His first experience of self-exploration ends in tragedy, changing him drastically. Finally, we met grown Chiron played by Rhodes. His powerful frame and hardened mentality makes him barely recognisable, yet in his performance is a man who has not yet discovered himself. The character dissolves as he reconnects with his past and those who have shaped him.
Naomie Harris is unrecognisable as Chiron’s drug addicted mother Paula. The usually elegant actress is rough, cold, and cruel as she flips between a selfish and spiteful parent to one that feigns interest in the well-being of her child easily. Yet as the film comes in three acts she too evolves, like her son. We meet her later in life, where regret and shame are her most visible traits. Despite all audiences have seen, she wants forgiveness from the boy she once abused. In Harris’ portrayal, you believe she may just deserve this.
Rounding up the cast in a small but powerful role is award winner Mahershala Ali. His role as mentor to young Chiron is one that shows the power of tolerance and compassion. Despite playing a drug dealer, he beaks all the usual stereotypes. The scene where he teaches young Chiron to swim is one of the film’s most tender moments. The chemistry and trust between the two actors is felt so strongly.
The absolute essence of film-making; A wonderful, unflinching, and mesmerising coming of age drama. Not just powerful but a vital and necessary film.
Moonlight is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!