US (2016) Dir. Barry Jenkins
There were shocks all round at the Oscars earlier this year when this low budget drama pipped the bookies’ favourite La La Land to the Best Film Oscar – not in the least when a mistake with the envelopes saw the latter film incorrectly announced as the winner first! Whilst I enjoyed La La Land, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, so I am intrigued to see if this underdog victory was justified.
Broken down into three parts, the story concerns the life of black gay man named Chiron growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. In part one entitled “Little”, we meet the owner of that appellation Chiron (Alex Hibbert) due to his small stature, bullied at school and verbally abused by his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris). His only friends are Cuban drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe).
In the second part “Chiron”, our teenage subject (Ashton Sanders) is still being bullied and Paula is now selling herself to fund her drug addiction. Juan is dead but Theresa is still a positive presence in Chiron’s life much to Paula’s chagrin. It is with his Cuban American friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) that Chiron has his first gay sexual experience.
Finally in “Black”, the nickname Kevin gave Chiron, we are now ten years on from the last part, with adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) no longer little, now based in Atlanta a drug dealer himself, modelled on Juan. Chiron answers an invitation he received out of the blue from Kevin (André Holland), also a former jailbird, now working as a chef in a diner.
Moonlight doesn’t really follow a straight narrative in lieu of its chaptered structure yet it tells a compelling and sequential story nonetheless. This would be due to the source material being the semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, reportedly not directly about McCraney’s life but is inspired by real events in his community.
This is a tale about identity and knowing what we want from life. A recurring question asked is “Who is you?”, partially in anger when people try to assert themselves into another’s business, or in earnest when confronted by the harsh realities of the decisions they have made. There is something oddly elliptical about how the fortunes of the main cast intertwine across the three time periods, starting off in one pair of hands then ending up in another’s while the circle remains unbroken.
It seems fate is to deal a cruel hand to all the main players, twisting the knife that little further by having them all play pivotal roles in the other’s downfall or at least in shaping their futures. There is an irony about this given the way they all have some flaw – Chiron is largely silent and can’t fight back; Juan is kind hearted and fatherly to the lad but his pernicious vocation is hardly admirable; Kevin is generally a good friend but subject to peer pressure.
Paula, Chiron’s drug addled harridan mother, is the only constant in his formative years but not in a good way, dealing a double blow to the boy when he learns that Juan is the one who is selling the drugs to her. In the final act, they reach an understanding with Paula now in rehab but the presence of drugs in both their lives has come full circle with Chiron now dealing himself.
Amidst all the domestic drama and unconventional path to adulthood that has blighted Chiron’s life, the gay aspect is underplayed and not a recurring or predominant factor. It features in just two scenes, only one with a kiss and some physicality, and for the most part doesn’t seem to have affected Chiron’s adult life with no signs of him exploring his sexuality further or dealing with homophobia.
This is resolved in a subtle way for a touching denouement that might seem like a cop-out rather than facing the gay issue head on, but maybe this isn’t the story Jenkins or McCraney wanted to tell. Instead it could be viewed as a gritty love letter of sorts to Miami, at least the urban side of it that people don’t get to see – usually it is sunshine, beaches and tanned bikini babes; Jenkins shows us impoverished housing estates, drug ridden communities and unruly teen violence, a rude awakening for many audiences.
Personally I would like to have known more about the main female characters, Paula and Theresa, both playing important roles in Chiron’s life in opposite directions. We know Paula is a royal screw-up but why? And where is Chiron’s father? No answer is offered only her genuine contrition in later life now in the grasp of sobriety. Theresa on the other hand is an honest, pragmatic and decent woman making her relationship with Juan baffling without enlightenment as to how it came to be.
Neither role deserves to be so reductive nor to type but the upside is the performances by their respective actresses. Janelle Monáe is apparently a singer known for her exuberant quirks but the naturalness displayed here belies this. Brit Naomie Harris, mostly known as Miss Moneypenny opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond delivers a stellar turn as Paula, hitting her apex in her final scene, unfairly ignored at the major Awards.
All three actors playing Chiron bring something different to the role yet the very essence of his character remained intact throughout the changes, a rare and remarkable feat by all three, bolstered by solid support from Mahershala Ali and the various Kevins. Jenkins’ direction is assured and the visuals are polished but the pervasive “street” edge is never compromised.
Despite the weighty overview and representation of black communities, Moonlight could have delivered so much more had it explored the supporting characters further than it does, but offers an absorbing viewing experience through the superb performances. Best film though? Tough call but a worthy contender nonetheless.