by Joey Saunders
“Moonlight” might be the movie America needs to see after enduring this year’s grueling election cycle, but the election’s unexpected results may have inadvertently cost the film an Oscar. Barry Jenkins has written and directed a painfully beautiful film that feels at once epic, in the way it spans years of a young man’s life, and incredibly intimate, as a focused, lovingly crafted character portrait. The movie’s simplicity is genius yet wholly unpretentious, its themes, universal. Jenkins’s story checks in on our protagonist, Chiron, at three points in his life: as a boy, as a teenager, and as a young adult; each incarnation played with marvelous consistency by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively.
The film’s intimacy is also informed by its specificity. It is a movie about growing up poor, black, and gay. Yet, it zooms out from its main character just enough to be about so many other things– identity, masculinity, family, coming-of-age, first love, parenting, bullying, poverty, drugs– all handled with such striking empathy and woven into the story with such organic grace that it feels startlingly relatable. The scope of its insights, perhaps even more than its span of time, contribute to a feeling of epicness. And, while the film is brisk and tidy, it isn’t pat and leaves things relatively open-ended while managing to be immensely satisfying.
Jenkins skirts the edges of, and sometimes embraces, cliches found in gay coming-of-age tales and urban, black stereotypes; but he explores the nuances of drug dealers, bullying, single motherhood, and black homophobia without judgement. His restraint and empathy informs the film’s incredible performances. Most notably, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. Harris plays Chiron’s struggling single mother with heartbreaking believability, her role could have easily veered into the realm of overdone melodrama but she expertly stays the course, aided by Doniella Davy’s fantastic age makeup in later scenes. Ali paints one of cinema’s more complex portraits of a drug dealer as he becomes a kind of mentor and surrogate father to young Chiron. Despite his illegal source of income, Ali’s character, Juan, and his partner, Teresa, played warmly by Kansas City-native and six-time Grammy-nominee, Janelle Monáe, come to represent one of the few stable, identity-affirming components of Chiron’s tumultuous early life.
The story’s beauty is amplified tenfold by the film’s technical triumphs. Director of photography James Laxton seems to always know where to place the camera. There’s a lot of raw, cinéma-vérité-style steadicam work, the sort of stuff you’d expect in this type of film. But occasionally Laxton bobs and weaves from that format, embracing dramatic stylistic flourishes. The result isn’t distracting, it’s éclat. Laxton’s photographic excellence is paired perfectly with colorist Alex Bicket to give the film a rich, high-contrast boldness that looks deep and sometimes sensual, but never garish or over saturated.
“Moonlight” is nearly perfect. So, with a satisfying, emotional story, incredible cast, a strong technical prowess, a confident director at its helm, and a slew of critical acclaim, shouldn’t it be a shoo-in for the Academy Awards? You’d think so. Last year, many journalists, celebrities, and folks on social media were highly critical of the Oscars for its lack of diversity.
You may remember the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag? Much of the controversy arose because, for the second year in a row, the Academy had nominated only Caucasians in its acting categories. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a complex organization with more than six thousand voting members. Its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, vowed to double the number of women and minority members by the year 2020. However, as it stands, the Academy is still about 91% white and 76% male. Nevertheless, press and critics had speculated that this could be a strong year for films, like “Moonlight” that feature people of color onscreen and behind the camera. An early favorite, “Birth of a Nation,” ended up being plagued by controversy surrounding its director, Nate Parker. Parker and a friend were accused of sexual assault at Penn State in 1999. His friend was found guilty but Parker was acquitted, although his accuser maintained that he had raped her. She killed herself in 2012. “Birth of a Nation” opened to mixed but mostly positive reviews; it currently holds a 73% on the review aggregating site, RottenTomatoes.com. Still, its once-bright Oscar prospects have dimmed.
“Moonlight” looks like Oscar’s best bet for diversity this year and, even without the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it deserves all the accolades it will get. Denzel Washington has directed and starred in “Fences,” another film prominently featuring black talent that has garnered much acclaim. It is likely that Washington’s co-star, Viola Davis, will be nominated and win for Best Supporting Actress. Still, the buzz and excited surrounding “Fences” doesn’t seem to match that of “Moonlight.” It didn’t seem like a sure thing, but “Moonlight” seemed poised as an early frontrunner. And then Donald Trump won the presidency.
Hollywood, in spite of its lack of diversity and accusations that it propagates misogyny, is still a liberal bastion, especially when it comes to performers who make up the majority of Academy voters. I’m not sure if you noticed this, but liberals are pretty devastated right now. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of more than 2 million but, thanks to the Electoral College, she lost the presidency to Donald Trump whose rhetoric has been deemed by many, especially in Hollywood, to be sexist, xenophobic, and racist. Many are frightened, there are talks of a Muslim registry, the loss of LGBT rights, and mass deportations, protests have broken out across the nation. In the wake of so much terror and despair, a movie that is as real and unflinching as “Moonlight” could be pushed aside in favor of feel-good escapist fare. I’m thinking specifically of “La-La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s a buzzy, high-quality, industry-insider musical. The Academy has historically enjoyed movie stars, movies about Hollywood, and musicals, “La-La Land” checks all three boxes. It doesn’t come out until December 9th, so I can’t say it doesn’t deserve the awards that it’s probably about to get. However, there is undeniable magic in “Moonlight.” So, whether or not it wins an Oscar, it’s exactly the sort of movie everyone, regardless of their politics, needs to see.