To be intimate with other people is impossible without understanding oneself. The word intimate is the first off the tongue when describing Moonlight. Understanding yourself is the first theme. A masterpiece of subjective filmmaking, the movie takes the audience through three stages of the life of Chiron, from childhood to adulthood, discovering his sexuality and having that growth both nurtured and stifled by his environment and those closest to him. It’s the chronicle of a love story, of forgiveness, of the effects of the drug culture and of the ever-changing definition of masculinity.
As Chiron attempts to find himself, wearing names given to him by other people as he sees fit, the camerawork of Barry Jenkins (and of cinematographer James Laxton) feels as though it finds itself in real time. From the opening spiralling tracking shot that opens the film we are treat to the most quietly confident filmmaking of the year, with a constant shallow focus that captures every nuance of performance, psychological and physical abuse filmed with the same straight-to-camera tension, flowing together a physical brawl with allusive touching with the same ease that Jenkins moves from dream visions to the general poetry of the filmmaking on display. His camera work is not the work of a technician, but of a fellow actor.
The name of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original play was In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Therefore, colour is integral to the storytelling of the film. From the lighting to the clothes to the production design, Moonlights moves through saturated primary colours, one taking prominence in each part of the tryptic, moving between the sections and building upon each other as the character grows, was especially striking. It’s there in little things like the stickers on the fridges and the condiment layouts in in the restaurant scene, or choosing when to film on the beach and give the lighting a naturally blue tint.
Juan (Mahershala Ali) might have openly rejected his nickname of “Blue”, but its presence, and therefore his presence, is felt in each of the three sections. The only father figure in his life, and lacking parenting from his drug abusing mother Paula (Naomi Harris) – though Juan is the closest source of those narcotics – his drug culture bravado clearly effects Chiron into his very adulthood, taking everything from his teeth grill to even some of his mannerisms.
Meanwhile, Chiron finds it difficult to move away from the labels given to him by other people. Other characters in the movie, particularly the older characters, seem comfortable to let their environment dictate the life they lead. But for Chiron, what defines man in the 21st Century? That question is the key reason that the final act contains the Jidenna song “Classic Man”, but chopped up and screwed, the cello of the Nicolas Brittel’s incredible orchestral score tied into the booming bass of modern hip-hop/R&B production. It’s a microcosm of Moonlight’s filmmaking ideals, but also how the idea of the “classic man” is constantly changing, and for the better.
For the other identifiers, of course, “Black” is the most loaded name of all. The reveal of this name in the third title card is done in such daring, and with such implications about how people can be forced into societal stereotypes, that it was the moment in which the movie started to move me to tears. Moonlight’s emotions are, like its lead cypher, quiet. The culminate weight of everything sneaks up on you.
It seems pointless to highlight one performance out for praise, as it is for ensemble casts like this that the Academy should reconsider how they allocate acting awards. Each performer who plays Chiron is excellent, but if I was to single out the most difficult task it would be teenage Chiron and Kevin (Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome), who had to make us believe that the children at the beginning could become the adults by the end. Mahershala Ali’s role may only be in the first section, but his pivotal presence is what will (likely) win him that Oscar, and him and Janelle Monae (both also costarring in Hidden Figures) better be treating their agents with more respect.
With a story like Moonlight, one that could be cynically dismissed by the number of boxes it ticks, you are lost more in beauty than in poverty. In the way it opens with Boris Gardiner’s “Ever Nigger is a Star”, making explicit connections with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (another masterpiece of oppression and identity in African American culture). The way little character details can be found on number plates and children’s drawings. The way crystal blue water constantly comes into the narrative to cleanse character’s souls. Film is often seen as the medium of light, and in Moonlight its poetry shines like few others.