Not many films examine masculinity at all, let alone as well as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight does. Combine that with a film that examines sexuality, race, and poverty in ways we rarely see and you have something truly exceptional. But Moonlight goes a step further and is universal in its ability to connect.
Moonlight is incredible. The direction, writing, cinematography are all flawless. If you haven’t seen it, you should. The film is set in three acts, with three different actors playing the same character at different points in his life. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead).
The start of Moonlight opens with Boris Gardiner’s “Every N****r Is a Star” (a reference to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly – a masterpiece that examines mental health, addiction, race and society, amongst many other things) and an introduction to Juan (Mahershala Ali). You could write entirely about the incredible music used in the film, from the soundtrack picks to the subliminal score by Nicholas Britell (soundtrack on Spotify here). Here Alex R. Hibbert plays “Little” in the first of the three acts of the film (although it is obvious throughout the movie that it was adapted from a play, it does not have the problem that Fences has in transforming into its new medium). We watch as Little’s mother slips further in to drug addiction and he meets and connects with Juan, someone who sees a truly isolated child and offers them a connection. In the last scene before moving on we seen Juan and Little, and Little asks Juan if he deals drugs and if his mum does drugs. This, coupled with a previous scene where Juan confronts Little’s mum Paula (the incredible Naomie Harris), was a highlight for me from the first act.
In the second act Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is awkward and sad; the setting of someone being bullied in an American high school is familiar and featured in many narratives. The betrayal Chiron experiences in this act (this is semi-autobiographical up until the end of this act, check out this interview with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney here) is gut wrenching and leads Chiron to take control of his life, in a destructive way.
Black (Trevante Rhodes) is Chiron fully grown and emulating Juan in everything from the crown on his dash, to the grills, to to his body language. He is also a man who has obviously built himself, physically and mentally, for survival. In many ways the third act’s most striking feature is the facade that Black has created for himself; the use of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” is a give away, a song about a man with old-fashioned values and beliefs and the stereotype of masculinity and of an OG. I don’t want to say to much about the ending of the film, it is fantastic and you should go see the movie immediately if you haven’t already.
Why Moonlight is universal.
There has been quite a lot of discussion about whether people can connect to this film. Camilla Long is one of the few critics not enthralled by Moonlight. She gave it a mixed review, and said the audience would be unable to relate to it because they would be mostly “straight, white, middle class”. There are lots of things you could pick out of her review, like the fact she wasn’t sure who was playing the protagonist in the three parts, that would make you wonder why she hasn’t connected to the film. I’m amazed that something in Moonlight didn’t manage to reach her and move her in the way it appears to have done to almost everyone else, but I personally think she is certainly wrong about any demographic of an audience being unable to relate to it.
That’s because you don’t have to be black, gay, American, even male to understand this. People have called it a coming-of-age drama, but it is about something more universal even than growing up: it is about connecting to another human being. Something so simple and integral to being alive that most people couldn’t imagine not having it. By showing us this essential part of being human from the perspective of someone so isolated, who is denied this connection by the person most responsible for providing it to him, it feels truly universal, allows anyone to connect to the character. From my perspective this is the part that connects to me the most. If I was black, gay, or male there may be another part of the film that speaks to me more or in a different way, as it has to many others.
But, what is incredible is that it doesn’t matter, because the film is so powerful and perfectly realised it will reach everyone. For me Moonlight is more about loneliness and the human condition seen through a lens of homosexuality, race and poverty than it is about specifically about those things. It is amazing to see a film with the diversity of Moonlight doing so well, both critically and commercially, but it’s true success is it’s ability to reach anyone who takes the time to watch it.