Back in September, I had the opportunity to watch Moonlight at TIFF (and reviewed it here). I missed the cast and crew but caught the final screening, and it quickly became my favourite of the festival, and eventually of the year.
When it came to writing my review, I wasn’t sure what to write about as I didn’t want to spoil any moments. That’s since been done, and moments have been revealed. So here is the review I wish I had posted then, but with eyes that have since seen it four times, and watched it make Oscar history.
Moonlight is both simple in its narrative, but also different and unique simply because nobody makes movies like this. The closest we’ve gotten to this is Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films or Linklater’s Boyhood. But those movies weren’t about anything except growing up. Moonlight tries to answer the question that is harder, and one they didn’t attempt to, “who are you Chiron?”
Chiron is an African-American male who was born and mostly raised in Miami. As the crack epidemic grew and grabbed onto more people, it also got ahold of his mother, Paula. As she became addicted, she didn’t treat her son the way he deserved, so he found help outside in the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer.
None of these events truly tell the audience who Chiron is, but shows what he’s been through, but that doesn’t define him (or anyone). Chiron is unsure of who he is. Moonlight is told in three chapters (i. Little, ii. Chiron, and iii. Black) and every iteration of Chiron is played by a different actor (Alex Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black). Barry Jenkins made the fascinating choice to not allow any of the three to meet the other actors until after filming was completed.
By now, most people are aware that the film deals with Chiron trying to figure out his sexual identity. And with the script written by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, it handles this with the utmost care and love. McCraney having been out (and never having a coming out moment himself) writes a passionate story that began as a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue as he tried to cope with losing his mother from AIDS. While Jenkins himself is straight, he always considered himself as an ally and shows compassion and the reality in the story that he relates to.
While every chapter in the film has a sudden change from one to the next, you’re never prepared for the big one that happens right before the third, where you see Chiron become Black, and the introverted quiet kid becomes the buff, confident drug dealer. It’s a shock at first, and they don’t feel like the same person until Kevin calls Black and Black hears his voices, and you can see the pain in his eyes. And that is what Yesi Ramirez, the casting director looked for amongst all three actors for Chiron’s characters, do their eyes tell a similar feel. She did the same for Kevin as well.
Kevin is another crucial part of Chiron’s life, he’s someone he grew up that is also played by three different actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland for chapters i/ii/iii). Chiron was always aware (and made aware) that he’s a bit different and doesn’t fit in. And it’s with Kevin that he makes his realization of it, and it comes in a beautiful and vulnerable scene. The juxtaposition with the betrayal in the scene that follows is heartbreaking, and it explains the change of character that Chiron becomes.
Chiron, like everyone else, just wants to know who they really are. He wants to find himself but he’s not given any opportunities to do so. He was forced to grow up into society’s idea of masculinity, but to be more precise what black masculinity means.
Society has consistently looked at and used pop culture to try and show what normal and “cool” is, and by not being represented on camera, it makes those who aren’t become “outsiders.” It turns it to be “everyone vs. me” when in reality vs. them is better used since the “outsiders” aren’t alone, there are so many others who go through similar things. But the lack of representation becomes a form of isolation. And that’s part of why Moonlight is so fucking important. It shows that the people who aren’t represented are around, they are human and so very real. The issues that they have mean just as much.
Every chapter has a brutal and blunt realization, that maybe he’s gay, he can’t stop crying sometimes, or that Kevin was his only experience. It becomes these huge moments of vulnerability that become tough to watch, but so painfully real that you can live in it forever. They are powerful and beautiful.
Moonlight is a film that has been stuck in my head with these same moments forever repeating since my first viewing. And with every viewing, it becomes more and more powerful. It’s a film that I believe has changed me for who I am.
When Moonlight surprisingly (but deservedly) won Best Picture, I cheered and cried. It wasn’t because the movie I wanted to win won, it’s because Moonlight is the type of film that gives voices to the underrepresented, to the outsiders, to the people who sometimes feel so alone in the world. By winning Best Picture, it doesn’t only give them a voice, it gives them a megaphone to reach everyone who feels alone and lets them know that they are not. And at times like this, the voiceless so very much need to hold onto their voices.