Not only is Moonlight an Oscar-nominated (UPDATE: winning!) film in which its main cast is made up entirely of black actors but it is an intimate, quiet story of a black man discovering who he is. The imagery of young black gay men was something that was doubted would ever be the focus of an Academy award-winning film, much more at home in a HBO or Netflix drama, but here it is in beautiful frankness.
Based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, we follow Chiron, portrayed respectively in childhood, adolescence and adulthood by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. All three share a reluctant stance in their physicality and their personality. Hibbert and Sanders have a tendency to bow their heads and stay quiet and Rhodes, whilst he gains a physique and a dominating presence in the room, continues to stand back from the moment, particularly when confronted with the question of his sexuality. This borders close to being overplayed as the three leads guard their inner-self so bluntly in their posture but it works as a communication device between Chiron and the supporting cast when he is known by everyone as being a boy/man of few words. It says much of the strength of the script that although the three leads never met, there is an unquestionable similarity in the way they carry themselves, helped undoubtedly by the rhythmic shot compositions used across the film’s chapters. Further, it speaks of Chiron’s place within two cultural minority groups that he would be so defensive about his true self. When he does confront his sexuality, it is handled with tact: jump-cuts and cutaways coupled with creative and striking cinematography. Nothing is crass or insensitive.
Screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) has a great handle on scene direction and editing throughout, emphasised with a fantastic classical/hip-hop score. When Mahershali Ali’s “Juan” first meets Chiron, then known as Little, the staging is divided by light, dark and inside, outside. Though less subtle than much of the film, it is a strongly symbolic set-up for events to come.
Naomie Harris is brilliant as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, uncomfortable with her son’s development and with the “way he walks”. Harris plays the character cold and lost, with frequent emotional snaps at Chiron and Juan, who feeds her addiction but also appears to have a greater connection to her son than she can manage in her fractured frame of mind. She plays numerous scenes directly to the camera, heightening her sense of loss as she looks for something through the fourth-wall.
Moonlight beautifully captures a story, a world, ignored by mainstream cinema releases (mainstream media?) and deserves the recognition it is now receiving. One can only hope this recognition now goes some way to reaching audiences who might otherwise have ignored a film of this genre.