Nov 7, 2016
Watching the first scene of this movie by Barry Jenkins, where Chiron, a scrawny black kid, runs from a bunch of bullies and hides in an abandoned property, panting in despair, I realized that there are no movies that feature black children as protagonists (except for the last version of Annie). This means that black kids never see themselves on the big screen, and not all that much on TV either.
If you are not white, you may grow up without ever seeing yourself onscreen. A gay black friend told me that this is the first time he saw himself represented. No movie until now had ever reflected his reality. This is tragic.
In this respect, Moonlight is important and remarkable, as it tells the story of the painful blossoming of Chiron, also nicknamed "Little", into a young gay black man, in three chapters: as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man. The critical and popular success of this movie will hopefully open doors for similar untold stories.
As is true of other movies with homosexual themes aimed at mainstream audiences, like Brokeback Mountain or Carol, Moonlight portrays Chiron's sexual awakening tastefully and tenderly. Jenkins has a fine cast, including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and André Holland, who are all excellent, and displays a sensitive, empathetic touch.
However, his self-conscious style gets in the way. He tries to elevate material that doesn't need elevating by using too many long and pregnant pauses every time characters speak, and camera work that calls attention to itself instead of deepening our understanding of the characters and their world. The script is rather thin and the characters are not detailed enough. The pacing is slow (not in a good way) and the film lacks detail and texture.
In "Little", the best part of the movie, Chiron gets rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and the boy refuses to go back home, adopting Juan as his father figure. So it is a surprise when we see that his home situation is not as hellish as what we imagined (aided no doubt by a cinematic diet of nightmarish inner city tropes). Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris) seems to keep it together at first, but then at some point she loses her way, and it is never clear exactly why. We can surmise that it's because her life is hard, but a lot of black women go through similarly hard lives and they don't all fall through the cracks. What happened to her in particular? Why is Juan such a wise and tolerant drug dealer? Since the characters are drawn in very broad strokes, these choices feel arbitrary.
At the center of this film is a shy and withdrawn character and, except when played as a child by the intense Alex R. Hibbert, Jenkins does not know how to make him compelling, besides the fact that poor Chiron is having a hard time being who he is. Except for a couple of strong moments where Chiron shows quiet, determined agency as a boy and as a teen, his character feels like a big void in the middle of the movie.
Spike Lee has made highly stylized movies that actually bring the world he portrays to life. Jenkins' self-conscious aesthetic approach feels forced and a tad self-indulgent.
How can a filmmaker portray the real lives of African-Americans in tough neighborhoods without it feeling like we've seen it a million times before? The drug dealers in the corner, the ravaged crackheads, they may all be true to life, but they have also become clichés. The only way to make them authentic is by filling in the context with specificity of character.
Am I the only person that feels that the erotic element could have been stronger? Jenkins handled the sex scene extremely well because it is moving, almost heartbreaking, and erotic how repressed these young men are. But then the thought crossed my mind that since black male sexuality is such a charged topic in American culture, and gay sex is off the charts, let alone black gay sex, he could have made more daring choices. This is how Moonlight reminds me of films like Carol and Brokeback Mountain, which opt for exquisite tastefulness in their quest to find and reassure as wide an audience as possible. Nothing wrong with this, and I don't blame Jenkins, as sex in general is literally absent from American movies, but it's food for thought.
Is Moonlight the year's best movie, as A.O Scott asks in his review? Not in my view. It is an uneven film that bounces from superficial, clichéd tropes to truly memorable and powerful moments in an underdeveloped screenplay.
Is it an important and necessary film that may open the doors to the stories of people who have been ignored by American movies for far too long? Absolutely.