Moonlight – a review

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In the moonlight a black man’s skin turns blue

Macho man incarnate, I’m the last movie fan to lose good lousing time to see a film about gay love among black men in Miami, but the street noise for Moonlight has been getting louder and louder; so, it was off to Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema where all the seats recline.

Moonlight is what critics used to call a chamber piece, and it is exactly that, but shot on digital anamorphic  widescreen which gives it weight and volume. It is the collaborative work of playwright and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, (another faux Scots-American surname) and director Barry Jenkins. As a low-key character study it’s flawless.

There’s a seductive sensuality to the colours on screen, faultless set pieces and settings, a languorous pace of events, characters are given lots of time to think and speak – the space between words given great meaning, and responses edited into thin slices giving them a minimalist power. The lazy sounds of sea lapping on sand commingle with crickets chirping in the sultry night air.

A fundamental question is posed to the main character of Jenkins’ bold, honest new film: “Who is you, man?” The beauty of Jenkins’ second feature radiates from the way that query is explored and answered: with expansiveness, not with foregone cliché or conclusions. It is asked by a black man of another black man; for me, the first I’ve heard it spoken in that context, and not a black man holding a knife at the throat of a white man demanding money with menaces.

The setting is a black Miami neighbourhood where streets and avenues are ‘blocked’ to individual drug traffickers. The locale is Liberty City, a housing project in Miami where Jenkins grew up, as did the playwright McCraney, whose unproduced drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the filmmaker adapted for the screen.

This is a story of the coming of age of Chiron, a boy who knows his mother and doesn’t like what he sees and hears, but doesn’t know his father, and never sees nor hears of him. Watching the film, McCraney says, feels “claustrophobic, like I’m back in that situation”. The hardest parts to watch are his teenage self getting bullied, and the reconciliation with his mother – the latter because it didn’t quite happen. “I did visit my mother [before she died] and it was awkward. I didn’t have that reconciliation but it’s so close to reality that it feels like it could be real.”

The story is divided into three chapters following its central protagonist, each titled with his name or nickname.

The three stages are: at ages 9, “Little,” played by Alex Hibbert, 16, “Chiron,” played by Ashton Sanders, and aged approximately 26, “Black,” played by Trevante Rhodes. They are all superb and physically actually appear as if grown up versions of the younger Chiron. As were Jenkins and McCraney, Chiron is being raised by a drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).

The first section concerns itself with Chiron school days, his attraction to a sympathetic school mate, the school bully who senses he’s gay and doesn’t know it, and his surrogate ‘father’ Juan who guides his emotions, played Mahershala Ali, a local drug kingpin who provides the crack that is ravaging Chiron’s mother.

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Juan the drug trafficker gives Chiron his first swimming lesson, how to stay afloat

In the first third there’s a pivotal exchange. “What is a faggot?” asks Chiron of Juan. Juan gives him a diplomatic answer. “Am I one?” asks Chiron in response.

“No, you aint. You is gay”, says Juan, matter-of-fact, without judgement.

“How do I know I’m gay?” queries Chiron. “You just do”, answers the wise Juan. This moment takes place in Juan’s condo that Chiron uses as a sanctuary to escape his  tempestuous mother. Juan shares his home with his doting girlfriend, Teresa, a fine big-screen debut from Janelle Monáe.

This is one of the many painful ironies in the film, highlighted without being underscored: a stranger’s house or an empty dope hole serve as safe places for Chiron. Chiron spends a lot of time trying not to go home, sleeping rough,  and hiding from his mother and the school  tormentors.  The boy finds refuge in the boarded-up house and holds an empty crack vial to the light, a stretch of silence that Hibbert, among the most watchful young performers I’ve ever seen, makes spellbinding.

The skill in the filmmaker’s arsenal of techniques is telling the tale of a monosyllabic man so well that we know how he feels at every moment. “You hardy speak a sentence that has more than two words in it”, says Chiron’s lover. Watching his reactions we’re convinced we know what is going on in his head. It’s method acting done without the histrionics. This film has a surfeit of feelings and emotions.

“At some point you gotta decide who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” The message is universal, everybody craves loves and affection but too many of us miss the intimate contact when fate intervenes, or our own fears hold us back.

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You rarely get painters to explain the meaning of their work, but filmmakers are ever enthusiastic to elucidate every and each nuance and motivation

There is drama and there is conflict – one thing presupposes the other – but it’s delivered in a disciplined way at odds with today’s fashion for over-wrought anxiety and over-the-top theatrics exemplified in hospital dramas.

A betrayal in the second section leads to more than one reconciliation in the third and to an even swoonier kind of romance. In his mid-20s and now living in Atlanta, Black, the sobriquet bestowed on Chiron by Kevin in high school, has entered his onetime mentor’s profession and has built up a carapace of muscle.

A phone call from Kevin, played as an adult by André Holland, the first time Black has heard from him in a decade, prompts a drive back to Florida and a reunion that, filled with so much pain, regret, omission, hurt, tenderness and love — is almost too much to bear.

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There are moments straight out of an Edward Hopper painting

“I got sent up for some stupid shit,” Kevin, grinning, tells his old friend as they’re catching up in the diner where he now does double duty as a waiter and cook. “Same stupid shit they always put us away for.”

After the restaurant clears out, Kevin plays a song on the jukebox for Black, a moment that could so easily have fallen into sickly sentimentality but here grips the throat. The mood switches and both characters are transported back to their school days and their one intimate moment.

Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act. In Jenkins’ film, that love – whether carnal, paternal or narcissistic – has many manifestations. It also need not extend to another person. “I’m me, man,” Black replies when Kevin asks him that key question of who he is, a declaration of ever-endangered pride and self-worth. And he’s never let another man touch him, or a woman, for that matter. He’s a man cleft in two.

The film has been highly praised in all quarters, but you’ll only find it in art house cinemas. It reminds us of the sort of thoughtful intelligent story we miss among all the action and special effects trash. And the music is a wonderful fusion of rock and classic. Oh, and it was executive produced by Brad Pitt.

I have one criticism, and it’s a big one. About thirty per cent of the dialogue is spoken in unintelligible local patois. And the rest is soft spoken. The movie demands subtitles. For that reason, for stopping us hearing some of its poetry, it doesn’t get five stars.

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Searching for affection, for tenderness, can be a man-made cage

I’ll leave the last word to the author.

McCraney sees the type of homophobia in Moonlight as an expression of misogyny. “The pressure of toxic masculinity forces men to forget things that are innate. You hear from men, ‘I want love, I want tenderness’ and yet we’re taught to act in the opposite way. If you’re cutting off the ability to give that, you’re cutting off the ability to receive it. We tell boys ‘You can’t be a nurturer, you gotta show brute strength’. When we place a child in that binary, we are cutting off a part of them. That’s rooted in misogyny, in a class system, ‘femininity is weaker’, ‘masculinity is stronger’.”

  • Star rating: Four stars
  • Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Saunders, Trevante Rhodes
  • Director: Barry Jenkins
  • Writer: Tarell Alvin McCraney (Based on his play)
  • Cinematographer: James Laxton
  • Music: Nicholas Britell
  • Duration: 110 minutes
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