Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Producer: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner
by Jon Cvack
I had seen Berry Jenkin’s first micro budget feature Medicine for Melancholy back in college, with Wyatt Cenac either right before or just getting into his tenure at The Daily Show. It was an inspiring movie, a simple love story told well, made for around $15,000, going on to land a theatrical release. A few years ago, Steven Soderbergh gave a State of Cinema speech at San Francisco International Film Festival a few years later, disgraced with the filmmaking profit, accusing studios of being run by businessmen rather than storytellers, comparing the experience to the Board of Directors at Mercedes telling engineers how to build cars. If he was in charge, he would create a pool of low budget projects and recruit a bunch of exciting up and coming filmmakers. Berry Jenkins was one of the names he mentioned. Soderbergh wasn’t involved in Moonlight and yet its success is exactly what he was hoping for.
Similar to Brokeback Mountain - which next to Goodfellas and Saving Private Ryan, experience one of the great Best Picture robberies in Oscar history - Moonlight explores masculinity. It’s told in three chapters, following a young boy Chiron Harris from the inner city who’s neglected by his drug addict mother Paul (Naomi Harris). We meet him running from some bullies and hiding out in an old apartment, when the local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him, welcoming him home and providing some much needed fatherly guidance. Not knowing anyone’s sexuality, let alone the plot, what I loved most about this section was discovering the facts from Juan’s perspective; we're not exactly sure of Chiron's sexuality, only suspicious, and it's Ali's ability to both refrain from judgment while understanding the dangers that make the performance so worth of the award.
The second chapter features Chiron in high school, meeting his first love Duan “Sandy” Sanderson (Jharrel Jerome). After a few bullies vow to beat Chiron up after school, Chiron meets up with Sandy who talks about getting detention for doing a girl from behind in the locker room. Sandy’s bisexuality acts as a bridge for Chiron, providing just enough fantasy to pull him over, but enough to act; perfectly capturing the passion of a first love and allowing us to forget any character’s sexuality.
It all leads to the final chapter which was by far the most fascinating and beautiful of the entire film. Like Juan, Chiron is now a drug dealer, jacked to the bone with muscle, covered in platinum, with a set of teeth to match. His mother has now gotten help, as clean as she could be, still in the hospital. Chiron eventually gets in touch with Sandy, who’s been released from prison, now cooking at a diner an hour or so away. Terrence heads over, not knowing what to expect. Sandy's now living straight; a good looking man. And yet it’s Chiron, played by Trevante Rhodes in his first role ever, who provides one of the most insightful and fascinating performances of the entire film, and of the last few years of cinema overall. For all his muscles jewelry, and drug dealer look, he’s nervous. And the one person who he connects to most sees past all that. We see a mixture of timidity, nervousness, and anger, cycling throughout the scene, as the two share a bottle of wine.
In the closing scene, as Terrence stands at the door, accepting that he can’t possibly have what he wants most, having the look of someone we’d never associate with these feelings, I was left with a powerful insight that has stuck with me ever since. Men too put on an appearance, whether through how they look or act, that can often cause us to become or feel categorized. There are easy labels for a variety of superficial aspects, and yet there is a long spectrum, filled with diversity and conflict. From sexuality to race, this movie challenges you to look a bit deeper at everyone you see, discovering that there’s no point in trying to place them into fine categories, as it may be one of saddest things you could ever do.
BELOW: The greatest upset in Oscar history
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