On paper, Moonlight is a film that faced an uphill battle from the start. This film, perhaps more than any other this year, breaks conventions, and not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to tell its story. That story, and the tiny cast of characters we meet along the way, have helped Moonlight deservedly become one of the favourites for February’s Best Picture race at the Oscars on a relatively small $5 million budget and reportedly tight shooting schedule.
In reality, Moonlight is made a success precisely because it didn’t face an uphill battle when it came to its production crew. Director Barry Jenkins and his small, exclusively black cast give their all to tell a story often left untold in media and literature; that of a young black man, growing up in a rough neighborhood with an addict for a mother and surrounded by drug dealers, who discovers he’s gay. The latter part of that premise is what’s new here, but the rest of it shouldn’t be disregarded – this doesn’t come across as a heavy-handed social justice movie. On the contrary, its themes and ideas are there to complement its story, rather than force an agenda down your throat.
Central to this character-driven plot is Chiron, played over the course of the film by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as the story is split into three acts spanning childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Naomie Harris, brilliant as ever, plays his drug-addicted mother in a role for which she deserves recognition in Best Actress categories during awards season, while Mahershala Ali gives a similarly outstanding performance as crack dealer Juan, who becomes a father figure to Chiron in the first act.
One of the things I loved about this film was that it takes an issue often associated with ‘social justice’ and ‘political correctness’ – homosexuality – and puts it in an environment where those terms are alien; a community where common slang still involves words like faggot being thrown around liberally. In Moonlight the issue of homosexuality is real; it’s an intrinsic part of Chiron’s life, yet one he struggles to comprehend and doesn’t feel able to engage with openly or inwardly. It’s a world away from Facebook and Twitter, where everyone is bravely typing behind their computer screens, telling people they don’t know what they can or can’t say. For me, only through a film like Moonlight, which portrays the harsh realities that kids in certain communities face growing up, can an issue like this truly be engaged with in a helpful manner.
Anyone concerned about having to sit through uncomfortable sex scenes needn’t worry – this is certainly no Blue is the Warmest Colour. Essentially it’s a story about what’s left undone, what’s left unsaid in Chiron’s life; he himself is clearly an introvert who struggles to articulate his feelings at the best of times, having grown up without a father, and a mother who, when she wasn’t taking drugs, spent her time prostituting herself in order to pay for them. There is little here to offend anyone who appreciates good storytelling within its contextual setting.
Should Moonlight steal a few headlines in the early months of next year during awards season, there may be some who’ll try to claim it’s merely a reaction to last year’s “whitewashing” controversy, with its exclusively black cast. I hope I have communicated here that to do so would be a disservice to this film. It’s one of my favourite movies of the year, and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen this year. Whatever Moonlight wins in February, it has earned on merit – not because of some online social justice movement.
10 / 10