Recently, I heard that a friend of mine had watched a pre-released copy of Moonlight on his tablet. Apparently, he thought the film was ‘OK, but nothing special’ (!) I can only assume that – as is often the case when one is not totally focused upon receiving specific information – he wasn’t paying attention; for this movie is very special indeed.
Indeed, Moonlight – based as it is on the Tarell Alvin McRaney play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and directed by Barry Jenkins – is a prime example of the phrase: from specificity, true universality flows.
The movie tells (parts of) the story of a young Black pre-teen, ‘Chiron’, striving to cope in Liberty City, Miami, whilst simultaneously fending off unwanted attention from bullies, and suffering neglect at the hands of his dysfunctional, drug-addicted single-mother ‘Paula’ (a superb Naomie Harris). The film is told in three acts – each one showing a specific period in Chiron’s development, and each one named after one of his three identities / alter egos.
ACT 1 – “LITTLE”:
In the first act, we see the sensitive ‘Chiron’ (nicknamed: “Little”) being bullied and teased by his peers. With no father figure to look up to, he gravitates towards local hustler ‘Juan’ (Mahershala Ali) who, along with partner ‘Teresa’ (Janelle Monae) – becomes a source of hope. This is, until Chiron finds out that Juan also supplies his mother with crack-cocaine. In effect, the man whom he chooses to bring him up – literally suspending him during their ocean-set swimming lessons – is also responsible for dragging his life down. Once again, young hope turns to disappointment.
ACT 2 – “CHIRON”:
Here we see Chiron, in his teenage years, having to brave the twin evils of his mother’s addiction, and the incessant schoolyard bullying without the departed Juan (who has been killed off-screen). His only sources of comfort are Teresa and – more pertinently – his childhood friend, Kevin. It’s Kevin who – in Act 1, ignores peer-pressure by befriending Chiron (whom he nicknames ‘Black’). In this section, Kevin takes it to the next level by getting him ‘high’, then kissing and masturbating him by the water’s edge. These scenes are emotive, and very tastefully done, as are the scenes of Chiron fantasising about his (presumably long-time) boyhood ‘crush’. Alas, Kevin’s apparent self-assurance is shown to be fraudulent, as a school bully ‘Terrel’ (Patrick Decile), affronted by Chiron’s perceived effeminacy, demands that Kevin initiate his schoolyard beating; fearing the disapproval of his peers, Kevin reluctantly acquiesces. After his public ‘gay-bashing’, a change takes place within Chiron, and he seeks similarly public and violent retribution against the bully. As he is taken away in the back of a police vehicle, Chiron’s exchanges one final look with his childhood friend/lover/betrayer and so, the boy who brings him off is also responsible for, seemingly, putting him on and – once again – young love turns to disappointment.
ACT 3 – “BLACK”:
In this section an adult Chiron has now relocated to Atlanta, and is running a small-scale street-drug ring. He has hardened himself, both socially and physically; his huge muscles are his armour – a metaphor for emotional impenetrability. His only concessions to vulnerability seem to be his mother – now a live-in counselor at The Peachtree Drug and Rehab Center – whom he visits regularly, and (an unseen) Theresa. In an affecting scene, Paula apologises for her part in his ‘development’, and expresses the wish that her son’s heart doesn’t become black… like hers. Elsewhere, his social engagements are limited to those within his drugs-sphere, which – as is hinted at earlier – doesn’t bode well for his long-term prospects… and then… a phone call.
From here, we get the 10-year reunion between Chiron and the adult Kevin; it is illuminated by extraordinary writing, and by wonderful acting between the two male actors Trevante Rhodes (Adult Chiron), and André Holland (Adult Kevin). As this tour-de-force of writing, acting, direction, editing, and cinematography culminates in a beautifully calibrated denouement, many archetypal questions are explored:
- As modern relationships become ever more dependent on group consensus, are our commonly held notions of masculinity an impediment to healthy interaction between men?
- How much do old ‘macho’ codes get in the way of men becoming more emotionally connected (whether singularly, between two individuals, or within a social network)?
- How much of our public face is actually who we are, and how much is merely a series of tics/habits designed to placate others.
- Are our personalities preordained, or… can we flip the script?
- When does The Adult arrive? When is The Child reconciled? When are we whole?
After the BFI screening on 15th February (my 2nd viewing of Moonlight in as many days), BBC’s Danny Lee conducted an insightful live interview with writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, and director Barry Jenkins. As the two spoke – with clarity, and candour – it became abundantly clear that no other playwright could have written this story, and no other director could have so successfully brought it to the big screen. Indeed – by their own admission – the two of them together form a composite of the character, Chiron.
McCraney – having written the original play aged 22 ‘as a film’ – apparently held out on letting it go, until the right relationship presented itself. Having found Barry Jenkins, it soon became clear to the two of them that they had much in common: although having never met, they found that they’d both grown up near the film’s Liberty City location, and had both watched their respective mothers fall victim to drug-addiction. Despite this, Jenkins had reservations; he asked himself the question: ‘can a straight man tell this story?’ He then came to a stunning conclusion: “If I can’t empathise with this character, I’m saying something fundamentally f***ed up [about myself]!” So he agreed to script, direct, and co-produce it; writing the entire draft in a 10-day stretch whilst hiding out in Belgium – “the most boring place in Europe” (cue much merriment).
The film cost some million-and-a-half dollars to make, and 28 days to shoot. This meant that – although there was little or no creative interference – they had to shoot quickly. One example was when – for the crucial ‘baptism’ scene – Mahershala Ali’s Juan had to teach Alex Hibbert’s Child Chiron to swim in the ocean for real… with a huge storm closing in. The unit only had time to film the one take but, well, anyone who’s seen the film – or the trailers – will agree that it worked out just fine.
Both of these creatives were engaging, fascinating, and funny speakers. Not just that, but their shared camaraderie was clearly evident – especially when Jenkins described a day of filming Rhodes’ (Adult Chiron) physical work out scenes. Upon hearing his colleague state that the muscular Rhodes was “drawing the gaze”, the openly homosexual McCraney – obviously a lover of language (and jokes) – clarified his friend and colleague’s actual meaning.
The final word went to Barry Jenkins who – when asked what he wished the film’s legacy to be – offered an anecdote about a group of young Black pre-teens sitting in his director’s chair when the film unit was working in Miami. He said that, had he himself known there were people who ‘looked like him’ making movies when he was that age, then maybe he would have decided to become a filmmaker aged 11, and not 22. I believe this film will prove to be an inspiration to many – and for many years to come. Bravo!
An extraordinary film, followed by an insightful and inspiring Q&A session – it was a privilege to experience both the artistry and clarity of these two men.
Review by Mike Scott-Harding
Moonlight is in UK Cinemas NOW
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney
Cast: Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland