Moonlight (2016) Director: Barry Jenkins

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Moonlight is a warped bildungsroman film told in three separate parts about a young black boy and his extraordinary struggles through adolescence and adulthood. The film was directed by Barry Jenkins, a rising African American film director. To date, Moonlight is his most memorable film.

The story is based on a somewhat autobiographical 2003 play entitled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a successful playwright and chair of the Yale School of Drama. It tells the “coming-of-age” story of Chiron (pronounced “shy-rone” -though phonetically spelled the same as Chiron, the wise centaur and teacher of Achilles in ancient Greek mythology). The setting of the film is outside Miami, Florida in a wholly African-American community. The story begins in Chiron’s youth. We meet his crack-addicted mother, and a friendly, good-natured drug dealer who cares for Chiron in his mother’s absence. The drug dealer calmly tells Chiron that it’s okay to be gay. In adolescence, Chiron is regularly picked on by a school bully. One shocking evening, he has an uncomfortable sexual encounter with his good friend, Kevin (or “Kev”). However, the following day, Kev is forced by the school bully to beat up Chiron. After he is insufferably knocked down and beaten, Chiron returns the next day, and he severely injures the bully by unexpectedly bashing a chair over his head. This lands Chiron in Juvenile Hall. Lastly, years later we catch-up with Chiron in adulthood. He has become a drug dealer. His mother is in rehab, and one day he gets a call to visit his old friend and nemesis, Kev, who is now a cook at a diner in Atlanta. They have not seen one another since the traumatic events from the second part of the film. They discuss life and Chiron shares that Kev is the only sexual experience he has ever had.

Moonlight was praised as a masterpiece upon its release by critics, though it did poorly financially (prior to winning awards). It won the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars, as well as the parallel award at the Golden Globes. During the annual Academy Awards celebration, a rare mix-up was made and La La Land was announced as the winner, but this was quickly revised. It was an embarrassing faux pas for the Academy.

Moonlight beat other films for Best Picture, including Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea.

Much of the praise for Moonlight seems to focus on “raising awareness” of social issues, like race and sexual identity. However, the movie is unfortunately light on artistic merits, and, is remarkably cliché and melodramatic. For example, why is the character of Chiron so unbelievably innocent, naive, silent, and unassuming? Also, how is it that a hardened drug dealer at the beginning of the film suddenly cares about a little boy and the ethics of his mother’s drug use? Many of the characters in Moonlight test the audience’s patience and verisimilitude. Lastly, and most importantly, the scenes of youthful eroticism in the film are jarring and distasteful, not progressive and empowering. As in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, early teenage sexuality in film is unnecessary, unpleasant, and it distracts from the film’s larger purpose (though in Moonlight the child-sexuality is apparently central to the plot of the film for some reason). Speaking of which, the plot of Moonlight is wandering, and the tone is dark, jaded, and hopeless. There is no cathartic moment: nothing gained, nothing lost. Just unending bleakness without the promise of redemption. I tend to prefer films that elevate the human spirit, or offer a glimpse of hope, rather than films that dig the audience into a dark pit and then abandon redemption in the end.

The narratological framework of the film is told in a brilliant way – the tripartite portrayal of three memorable moments in the life of Chiron. Apparently the director, Barry Jenkins, kept each of the three different actors apart to highlight the different stages of Chiron’s life. There are some remarkable scenes of unique cinematography (long, direct close-ups where we hear characters speaking before their mouth moves). However, unfortunately this film is perhaps a better tool for a college sociology class than a truly great film.

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