First thing’s first:
After long and serious thought, I finally decided I should review Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a unique story of both race and sexuality, as I feel it somewhat encapsulates the strange coincidences of June 2020: it is both Pride month; and racial injustice has, once again, shown just how fragile our existence as both living things and a functioning society truly is. I took a break from social media this month because, while I do care about the seriousness of the situation at hand, I didn’t want to just post something attuned to the algorithm simply because it is expected.
I did want to say something – but because I actually care, and not because I want other people to see me caring. I even considered not writing a review at all for this month (June), as penning such a thing for mere entertainment seemed trite, irrelevant, callous and indifferent. The world feels so much smaller since the ongoing pandemic gave us a brand new “worst year ever”, so when everyone I know and follow on the web began posting about the ugly nightmare that is 21st century institutional racism, suddenly it didn’t feel like a simple trend or social media morality contest.
It was something that, I too – as an adult now, have a responsibility to acknowledge as more than historical horror stories we learned about in history class. I knew if I wanted to comment upon the murders of innocent people, because of the colour of their skin by thugs in uniform, I would have to be worthwhile and sensical; and I know movie reviews, so why not review a film that feels oddly representative of how current affairs have me thinking. If you’re still not sure of the relevance, read on and hopefully you will soon.
In a nutshell: Moonlight, to me, is a perfect film; I fail to recall one single issue, glaring or petty, that has irritated me at all during the several times I have sat down and observed its excellence. The timing of every cut is exact, no shot is unnecessary or apparently lost in the construction of the juxtaposition, born of one of the most succinct scripts I have ever seen – with a collaboration between cast and director seemingly predetermined by fate; Moonlight is one of my favourite films of the 2010’s. A masterpiece, unsullied by any flaw that is obvious to me and practically tyrannical in its emotional impact and catharsis.
This is a film about culture, how it can shape us as individuals and effect our identity; even stunt our identity and prevent us from growing into the person we are meant to be. The world the characters in Moonlight populate dominates them like parent setting impossible expectations for their children to meet; everyone has succumbed to its demands and seek to spread it like a sickness. This is what lies beneath the surface of the story, a character grows in fear of his own world, one that only relents its torments when he finally folds to its will.
Each act stands alone – the story unfolds as three separate chapters; telling of three important time periods in the life of Chiron. First as a child, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult (each played by a different, perfectly cast actor), Chiron’s story is one of identity and self-acceptance, in a world that ruthlessly berates, scrutinises and devalues such things. This character is introverted to the point of complete silence, sensitive, black and gay – each to be either suppressed into non-existence, or harnessed the way he thinks is expected; all for the sake of finding peace within the harsh society he finds himself born.
Throughout his struggles, the people in his life provide the tools by which his character is shaped; for better or for worse. Naomi Harris is frightening and unrecognisable as his neglectful drug-addicted mother, Mahershala Ali steals the show as her dealer, a well intentioned man of conflicting morals – and father figure to Chiron, and finally a character named Kevin; also played by three different actors across the three chapters. The most important figure of all, Kevin ultimately digs the deepest, breaking through with such heart-stopping emotional intensity; he helps to form one of the most perfectly written, acted and directed finales in movie history.
Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are the actors embodying Chiron during the three intervals; it is written that they never met during production, lest they inadvertently influence each other’s performances. I find that quite astonishing, as it takes no effort to believe them each as the same man, simply across different times; further proof as to the talent of director Barry Jenkins. The cinematography is alive, every directorial decision I can see is exactly right, there are too many sequences of particular power to mention here and, as I said before; there is not one single second of this movie I don’t like. Totally deserving of Best Picture, it’s cathartic, agrees with me stylistically; it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seem.
Now that we have the basics of a movie review out of the way, there’s something very specific I want to touch on; the third act incarnation of Chiron – simply nicknamed “Black” (and the reason current Earthly affairs have me thinking about this film). We’ve established that Chiron is quiet, shy, introverted and unassuming, but by the time he becomes an adult he has become the poster-child for externalised masculinity one would expect to find in a poor black neighbourhood laden with drugs. He’s muscular, wears gold jewellery and grills on his teeth, he frightens his underlings and comes to his drug deals armed and ready – this is not whom he truly is; the world’s judgement has made him this way.
Not unlike those rioting in the name of racial equality.
Is rioting a crime? Well, yes. But these are not criminals, as there is an exception to every rule and nothing is ever ignored more than context, particularly if that context completely justifies a reaction of such ferocity. This is not some example of crime en masse in the US of today; as some have tried to portray it. These people would not be rioting if the world had not forced their hand, this occurred to me, during Moonlight, when we are introduced to “Black”. The camera tracking back from an extreme close-up of the gold in his teeth, the music blaring and his size imposing; all I could think about was a quote from the great James Baldwin. “First the world calls you a n***er, and you begin to call yourself a n***er, you begin to react that way, you begin to confirm the world’s judgement”.
Treat a person cruelly and they will respond in kind, whether simply dressing how you want, speaking how you want or loving how you want; like Chiron. Or seeing no other option than to erupt, when the more peaceful terms are already scoffed into criminality; like those brave souls out in the streets, simply asking that they stop being arbitrarily disposed of as they sleep in their beds. Art reflects reality, any questions about the world can be answered through or by observing art; it can and has changed the world – it is how we refer to history if not for catastrophe and Moonlight poetically represents the difficulties still forced upon black people across the world.
Even as we sit comfortably within the 21st century, prejudice remains a mysteriously enticing mistress to the un-educated and cruel. And yet, all the questions many ignorant people have as to the behaviour of their societal victims (that have divided cultures and races for so long), why they react the way they do, can be answered so briskly if only apathy would cease and those in power would care enough to look. So, stay safe, wear masks, don’t ever watch Fox News, donate to Black Lives Matter; and for heaven’s sake – try loving each other for once.