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Moonlight: A Tale of Three Blue Boys
By Alex Carrigan
*Editor's Note: This article is part of a review series by Alex Carrigan from February 14-24. To learn about the series, visit this post.
As I mentioned yesterday, I went to the AWP conference in DC recently. The first panel I went to was called “The Politics of Queering Characters.” The panel featured five LGBT+ authors discussing how they approach writing queer characters and building stories around them. One author, Jervon Perkins, talked about how he, as a black, queer writer, was glad to see more and more stories that pushed queer men of color into the public eye. He cited Moonlight as an example of this and having seen the film, I can see why the film would mean so much to Perkins and so many others.
Moonlight is a film in three parts, following a young, black kid named Chiron through three stages of his life: a quiet adolescent (Alex Hibbert) to a bullied teen (Ashton Sanders) to a hardened drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes). Chiron’s story is one of discovering his sexuality while coming of age in an impoverished area of Miami, with his drug addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to him, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his childhood friend and object of romantic interest, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre’ Holland).
Chiron’s story is not entirely about his sexuality, but rather how the environment he lives in stifles and encourages his sexuality. Growing up, Chiron is regularly bullied by other kids for his passive behavior and even receives some of it from his mother. He does find people who are more accepting, such as Kevin and Juan, but also doesn’t have the room to really grow or explore it to the degree he wants. The world he lives in is filled with drugs, hazing, and poverty, and while most stories would focus on the coming-out, this film chooses more to focus on how everything in his environment shapes Chiron.
As a result, this is a not a pleasant movie. Slurs and threats are thrown around commonly, and the film’s wonderful direction plays a part in making the viewer feel like an uncomfortable part of the setting. There are many moments where the camera spins around or moves with the characters, making it hard to feel grounded or oriented with the location. In some cases, such as the hazing Chiron suffers partway through the film, this only highlights the pain and horror of his situation.
That’s not to say the film is all unpleasantness and villainy. What’s really nice about Moonlight is that the film is willing to slow down and allow for quiet moments. After a rough day, Teen Chiron takes time to ride into Miami and sit by the beach. The last third of the movie centers around Chiron and Kevin having a civil discussion in a diner late at night. It allows the characters room to breathe and also allows them to be vulnerable. It’s in moments like these that Chiron is able to express his frustrations and his desires, and it lets the viewer connect with him and other characters.
Moonlight already is going to be high up in my final ranking. I know this film is not for everyone, but to me, it is absolutely one of the best films of 2016. The film allows the viewer to see a story that they would probably be unlikely to see anywhere else. It’s a film that shows the black experience, the lower class experience, and the queer experience, but allows them all to be demonstrated with plenty of nuance that it never becomes preachy.
Moonlight has eight Oscar nominations, and I’d love it to win a lot. Ali and Harris give great performances, and either of them could win Supporting Actor/Actress. I’d also really like to see Barry Jenkins win Best Director or for the film to win Best Picture. I know the odds are against it, but Moonlight is one of those films where I might come to love it more than the films that actually win at next Sunday’s ceremony.
Overall, I’m really happy I got to see Moonlight. Now that I’m exposing myself to more queer cinema and stories, this one is likely one that is going to be very important years from now. It combines a lot of experiences in a subtle manner, and never goes overboard with its story or its details. It’s a solid film, and one that I hope gets a lot more recognition, whether it be at this year’s Oscars or somewhere down the line in the history of queer and black cinema.
Tomorrow: I find myself probed into checking out the one science-fiction film up for Best Picture. I’ll be watching Arrival, and I’ll promise I won’t spend the whole review wondering why Amy Adams was snubbed.