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Like most people I love going to the movies to be entertained. But I also use movies as my portal to worlds I don’t know. I’m not a football fan, for example, but I love the movie Friday Night Lights. I love almost any good sports movie because it’s my ‘in’ to that world. At the same time I also crave representation in film; seeing something of myself so that I know that someone else feels what I feel or felt what I felt.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight does all of that and more. It’s elegant art but it’s also vital social commentary, never tipping its hand to one side or the other, and where they converge is a thing of beauty.
Deconstructing the toxic masculinity of mid 80s-90s Miami for queer African-American men is not an easy task. But Jenkins’ (and Tarell Alvin McRaney from his semi-autobiographical unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) keeps the film from ever leaning to indulgence or preachiness of its subject matter. As told in three parts, the growth from child to man of Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone) is so mesmerizing, so deeply felt, that the desire for safety, identity, and intimacy that he feels makes it easy for us to travel with him on his journey.
Jenkins has mentioned Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times as an influence for Moonlight but I also get the best of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Wong-Kar Wai’s Happy Together with the very uniquely American perspective and sensibility of Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
The performances by the three actors portraying Chiron throughout his life – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes are uniformly excellent. Young Hibbert is given the task of traversing the film’s most difficult conversation (his “What’s a faggot?” scene is permanently seared in my mind now) and is genuine and startlingly good. As teenage Chiron, Sanders is perfectly pent up, secretive and introverted. Rhodes, as adult Chiron – all muscle and hustle – is hauntingly broken yet deeply hopeful. As Juan, the neighborhood drug dealer that takes the fatherless Chiron under his wing, Mahershala Ali delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, subverting what you think a character like this would be and definitely from what you’ve seen before. Singer Janelle Monáe is fantastic as Juan’s girlfriend and a sympathetic ear to Chiron. As Chiron’s drug addict mother, Naomie Harris (the only actor to appear in all three sequences) manages an extremely fragile balance of a good mother who turns bad and ultimately needs forgiveness. It’s a physically and emotionally lived in performance. Andre Holland, as Chiron’s now grown up friend Kevin (with whom he has his first experience of burgeoning sexuality) has an ease and charm and in just a few short scenes conveys tremendous empathy and possibility.
Moonlight is an important and vital piece of black cinema, especially now. It’s only through visibility that compassion can be nurtured and fostered, transforming solitude and confusion into hope and understanding. It’s the best film of the year.