Even before the first shot of Barry Jenkins’ astounding sophomore feature Moonlight, I was pulled in by the warm, analogue sound of Boris Gardiner’s 1973 tune “Every N****r is a Star” laid over the A24* logo. It’s a song that’s easy on the ear, almost comforting musically, but its language and themes cut deep. The same can be said for Moonlight: so elegantly crafted, such difficult content, and like this introductory song, somehow ending on a hopeful note.
I was completely swept up by Moonlight’s blend of intimacy and expansive scope, its sweet humor and suffocating tension, its tragedy and its optimism. Throughout the film I waited for mistakes, looking for at least one small misstep, but it simply never came. Moonlight could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming an issue film, a film about being black, being gay, a film about poverty or addiction, but in avoiding pigeonholes it preserves itself as a character study in the purest sense. At all times it remains a story about Chiron (or “Little”, or “Black”, depending on the time period), covering roughly 20 years of his life. Each of the three different actors portraying him (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, chronologically) show masterful restraint, each one’s face so articulate in conveying the unspoken. In fact, the entire cast is exemplary; Mahershala Ali is a particular standout as Juan, Chiron’s drug-dealing father figure, eschewing any and all cliches such a description might conjure. His final scene with Chiron is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in its honesty about life’s complicated truths.
James Laxton’s cinematography may be Moonlight’s linchpin. At once raw and expressionistic, I was hypnotized by the closeups and handheld work, the lush and messy color palate of the Miami setting. There are a few nifty tricks, too (I particularly enjoyed one shot during the third act using a camera mounted to a car door), but Moonlight’s success visually is owed more to the choices of how to block and frame scenes. The film’s opening uses the camera’s mobility to give the audience an immersive sense of space. Another scene (one of the year’s best), depicting a baptismal swimming lesson, places the viewer within the undulating waves of the Atlantic, close enough to taste the salt water and feel the unlikely trust growing between two characters. Nicholas Brittle’s score adds layers of melancholy, curiosity and unease to the proceedings, at times evoking comparison to Johnny Greenwood’s work with Paul Thomas Anderson.
I hesitate to say much more about this film because words on a page cannot do it justice, and much of the pleasure and pain of Moonlight is derived from the accumulation of nuance throughout. The screenplay was adapted by Writer/Director Barry Jenkins from an unproduced play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who actually grew up only a few blocks from Jenkins in the Liberty City section of Miami where the film takes place. Both the play and the film contain autobiographical aspects for each of these men, and while Moonlight is decidedly the vision of two artists, it is a singular work, displaying the type of detail and subtle emotional shades that make great films great. Because there is so much to unpack, I look forward to watching Moonlight again. To readers yet to see the film, I envy your opportunity to experience it for the first time, to let wash it over you like the ceaseless tide of the Atlantic.
* This relatively new production company has been absolutely slaying it over the last few years. Take a look at their filmography and you’ll find a good many films that have appeared on Moving Pictures’ year end lists.