Moonlight is the black man’s Brokeback Mountain; less contrived, more intimate and powerfully thought-provoking. For too long has the queer narrative focussed on white voices, whether it be the aforementioned box office success or Blue is the Warmest Colour. Moonlight does justice to the complexities of the battle and struggles faced by millions of men of colour around the world in the clash of perceptions between queerness and hyper-masculinity. It details the coming of age tale of Chiron, a young and relatively poor black boy raised in Miami, a turned hardened man, coming to terms with his sexual identity in a world that expects him to reject seemingly feminine desires.
As suggested through the promotional content of Moonlight, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is split into three parts, each named after the monikers of his childhood, adolescents and early adulthood; Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes). As he forges his own path through the pressures of his community and peers, he is influenced and shaped by encounters along the way. Firstly, his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), whose drug addiction largely prevents Little from developing a sense of self-worth and belonging, then Juan (Mahershala Ali) poses the father figure he never had, yet his dealing crack to Little’s own mother causes an inner conflict for the young boy.
While Paula (Janelle Monaé), Juan’s former girlfriend, attempts to provide a stable home and listening ear for the teenager, now referred to as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), it is made clear that he does not feel entirely comfortable there following Juan’s passing. As Paula’s addiction worsens, he continues to grapple with his sense of self, as any teenager does, intensified by the stigma surrounding queerness. He confides in, and shares a tender moment with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) on the beach, a recurring setting which is referred to in each of the three chapters in a subtle and delicately posed manner. He is then betrayed by his only confidant following a hazing ritual, and is arrested after he seeks his revenge.
With adulthood comes forgiveness of his mother, now Black (Trevante Rhodes), a drug dealer following in the footsteps of Juan his predecessor, is reunited with Kevin (André Holland) in Miami. After his former friend amorously prepares him a meal at the local diner he works at, and they discuss the different course their lives have taken, they share an affectionate embrace, leaving a witness to this very intimate moment with a sense of hope.
This highly anticipated film delivers on all fronts. A subtle social and political commentary on the societal and cultural expectations of queer men of colour, all the while paying homage to a profoundly personal struggle, in an accessible and universal manner. Moonlight’s beauty and honesty, both aesthetically and in the performances of all leads and supporting roles, are a standout in cinematic history, while the set of the city of Miami, bathes each performance in a striking ambience, fit for this tale of sexual Bildungsroman.
Each and every shot was a visual delight, through intimate camera work, a recurrent shallow depth of field and a colour scheme even Wes Anderson would be proud of, yet not as gaudy, quirky and explicit. Thematic references, whether it be the quieting freeness of the ocean breeze or the moon itself, were never clichéd and always profound. The final noticeable act of defiance from this film’s team is its soundtrack. While hip-hop makes an appearance, cinematic orchestral music complements the profound visuals; a prime example that a dramatic soundtrack isn’t just for sappy films about white romantic encounters.
If Moonlight fails to take home best picture at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards, I will be thoroughly disappointed. I also believe it would do a great disservice to cinema as an art form if it lost to any other film as Barry Jenkins’ phenomenal masterpiece manages to cast an unexpected yet timely shadow over the other nominations. The accessibility that this film provides to a usually shamed and hidden narrative will do a great deal of work for the flow on effects of representation in media, while remaining a poignant and truthful visual masterpiece.