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Moonlight : A Review


My Rating : 3.75 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT.


Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is the story of Chiron, a black child who is "different" from most of the other people living in the Liberty City section of Miami. The story is told in three acts, covering Chiron's life as a little boy, a teenager and a grown man. The script is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Moonlight is one of those glorious films that allows you a glimpse into a world that you otherwise would never get to see. Barry Jenkins directing is solid across the board. He draws quality performances from his entire cast and also from his cinematographer James Laxton. Moonlight has a lush and vibrant visual style to it that enhances the surreal contradiction of a story set in a ghetto that is in the shadow of paradise. Jenkins has only made one other feature film, which I have not seen, but Moonlight is a powerful directorial calling card to much bigger things for a filmmaker with a deft storytelling touch.

The entire cast does very notable, if unspectacular and understated work in Moonlight. The acting is subordinate to the story and that is a great compliment to the cast. The actors who play Chiron, Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen) and Trevante Rhodes (adult) give seamless performances that perfectly capture the turmoil and tension living within Chiron. I found Hibbert to be especially great as he weaves his way from being a sullen and down trodden little boy to being full of life and vigor when someone understands him. Sanders does intricate work as teen Chiron who is a boiling cauldron of conflicting emotions. Sanders imbues teen Chiron with a vivid internal life that is magnetic on screen. There is never a wasted moment in Sanders performance, every moment is filled with a combustible, inner fury that is both unpredictable and heartbreaking. I thought Trevante Rhodes adult Chiron was, without question, the weakest of the three, but that isn't necessarily his fault as the third act is the weakest act of the film. To Trevante's credit, he does yeoman's work in the third act, but the script and the film fail him. 

The supporting cast, including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Jannelle Monae all do very sturdy and subtle work that selflessly propels the narrative forward. The child and teen actors are all really good as well. No one stands out, but they all create a cohesive and believable backdrop for Chiron's story to be told. 

As previously stated, the third act of the film falls flat and the great dramatic anticipation created in the sublime first two acts is never fully realized. That is a shame as Moonlight was on track to be a really phenomenal film. It is still a good one, but it fails to deliver in the end and I found that to be disappointing. Part of the reason that the third act is so underwhelming is because the first two acts, which are an exquisite coming-of-age story, are so exceedingly well done, which is sort of a blessing and a curse for the film when taking the final act into consideration. 

The philosophical and psychological questions that were rattling through my head watching this film, but which were never directly addressed by it, revolved around the notion of black men in a hard-core, gangster culture who are on the "down low", in other words, secretly attracted to men. The idea that the uber-masculine black popular culture of today masks a gay impulse is one deserving of a more thorough dramatic and psychological investigation than Moonlight had time to explore. History shows us that Black men have been systematically emasculated in America from slavery onward, with literal castration during slavery to symbolic castration during Jim Crow and beyond, calling grown men "boy" for example. The hyper-masculinity in the current black culture may be a response to this systemic cultural emasculation wound passed down over generations. The hip-hop/gangster archetype, with its tough exterior and overt hyper-heterosexuality, may be the psychological shadow created by this emasculation wound. The compensation, or over-compenstation as the case may be, for the deep-seeded emasculation wound takes its form as the hip-hop/gangster archetype, a sort of uber-male who reclaims his stolen masculinity. This hip-hop/gangster uber-male archetype though brings with it its own shadow, namely homosexual desire.

If you examine this idea even further it elevates the question of the cultural emasculation wound into some very interesting areas. Some of the questions that arise are, is this conscious attachment to the hyper-masculinity of the hip-hop/gangster archetype masking an unconscious attempt to heal a wound and fill a void created by centuries of systemic emasculation of black men? Is the hip-hop/gangster archetype's emasculation wound so generationally and psychologically ingrained that the archetype's sexuality embraces a shadow attraction to other men in order to fill itself with the “male” energy it unconsciously feels it lacks or was stolen from it? Is the hip-hop/gangster archetype a vehicle by which Black men unconsciously force themselves into an all-male environment, namely prison, where having sex with other men is an act of power and not an act of sexual expression, thus de-stigmatizing the homosexual act in their eyes and enabling them to heal their emasculation wound? These are the sort of questions that Moonlight raises, but only at the furthest of margins, and never fully engages. Maybe that is a story for another film entirely from Barry Jenkins, he certainly has the skill and career momentum to make it.

In conclusion, Moonlight is a flawed but very impressive piece of work. It is two-thirds of a great film, which is two-thirds better than most of the junk out there these days (I'm looking at you Nocturnal Animals!!). I recommend you see Moonlight in the theatre if for no other reason than to appreciate the visual artistry and dynamic color palette of cinematographer James Laxton. There are other reasons to see the film as well, namely the original and unique coming-of-age narrative which gives viewers a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world that is deserving of our focus for all of the human and dramatic gems it contains.

There is no doubt that Moonlight is a shoo-in for a bevy of Oscar nominations this year. The cynic in me knows that the Academy will embrace Moonlight for at least two reasons, the first is because it has an all black cast and they want to avoid the bad publicity of last years #OscarsSoWhite nonsense. The second is because it is a gay-themed film and the Academy generally likes films dealing with gay issues. While I think Moonlight is a good film, I think its flawed third act might make it a less-than Best Picture Oscar worthy film, but that is all relative and people of good faith can disagree on that and no doubt will. The best thing to do, and what I recommend, is that you go see Moonlight and decide for yourself.  Whether it is an Oscar-worthy film or not, it is definitely worthy of your hard earned dollars and your sparse free time.