One thing that bugs the hell out of me about Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 when it was breaking out a brand-new visibility for LGBT stories in all of its Oscar attention is how quick people were trying to spin Brokeback Mountain as NOT a gay story because its topics about the relationship between its two leads were “universal” and could apply to any heterosexual relationship. This made me mad – rather than just being a simple “I don’t agree with this” situation – because well… duh. Did you really believe that there’s a great divide between gay and straight relationships? There’s certainly things a gay man goes through that I’ll never experience being straight, but it should not be a surprise that in terms of romantic tragedy, one can find the story of Brokeback Mountain supremely relatable and it’s reductive to see people pretend this disqualified it as an LGBT story.
So, as Moonlight begins its much-earned run of critical acclaim leading up to its certain Oscar nominations, I’m gonna be really damn annoyed if I go on to find people try to dismiss it as a Queer cinema (something I don’t apply to the Ang Lee-directed Brokeback, but absolutely do here considering the film’s basis in an unproduced play by MacArthur Fellow Alvin Tarell McCraney, who is openly gay) simply because it’s… again, frankly an incredibly relatable tale from my perspective about more than just the life of a gay man – we don’t get many tales of black LGBT people (last year’s Tangerine was a breath of fresh air, even while I was not overall crazy for the film) and a little more – but also a severe drought – allowing us to accept the concept of a child considering his or her sexuality at a young age, something that still seems taboo for people to deal with. These are clear matters that Moonlight shines on and considers and yet it also uses those three subjects as the groundwork to provide an overwhelmingly dense study on masculinity, identity, silence, fate, and isolation. And all this while holding in themselves the fingerprints of McCraney and writer-director Barry Jenkins’ personal backgrounds within the neighborhoods they depict in Miami (both born and raised), though I feel given the re-writing Jenkins makes in the material, Jenkins has a louder voice in the film than McCraney.
The tale of Moonlight is the kind of structural exercise that absolutely makes me all sorts of excited even without watching the trailer of the movie. To sum it up, Moonlight follows three different turning points in the development of Chiron. The three different segments are painstakingly compact – they strictly begin those three events in Chiron’s life at the very start of their rising and they end immediately at their conclusion without the implication of how they affected Chiron except in that we can suddenly see the subtle yet notable difference in the personalities child Alex Hibbert, adolescent Ashton Sanders, and adult Trevonte Rhodes embody in their respective years towards Chiron. They don’t act as surrogates to those years in Chiron’s life either, they’re pretty clearly just part of a greater development, but Jenkins and McCraney don’t want to waste time with the in-between. They just want to show WHAT happened to Chiron and I think that’s what really makes it easier to find Moonlight so surprisingly moving, that people will input their own idea of what strung together these moments in his life to such a painfully restrained ending that could only come from a movie interested again in blunt emotional strokes than making things easy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself talking about the ending. The WHAT of what happened in Chiron’s life is identified not only by his age, but by the name he goes by. As laconic and insulated “Little” (Hibbert), he is found and semi-adopted by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his infinitely generous girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) after Juan witnesses “Little” being chased viciously by bullies. Together, the couple are one of the only refuges Little has from his tumultuous home life and intense mother (Naomie Harris), the other refuge being his sole friend Kevin (Jared Piner) advising him on how to get tough without losing any warmth towards Little. The sanctuary Little finds amongst this loving couple he found crumbles away as he makes an induction towards the circumstances of his mother’s condition towards Juan (in a scene that swears Ali will be at the least nominated for an Oscar), one that Jenkins and McCraney had the delicate ability to show humanize the trap culture in a manner white filmmakers simply refuse to do while recognizing the repercussions of what a drug dealer like Juan does.
As he grows out of the name Little in high school, everything that troubled Chiron (Sanders) as a child escalates. He’s rarely staying at his home anymore, Juan has died at some point between the first and second segment with not even the hint of whether it was as a result of his trap life or otherwise, the bullies have grown much more violent and inescapable, and his feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) have exploded into romantic feelings that are briefly reciprocated. It doesn’t help that Sanders’ performance adopts Hibbert’s refusal to speak while making it a lot more clearer how many emotions Chiron is knowingly swallowing and how it makes him look like he might just faint from all the effort from the very first frame Sanders takes over. And then the comfort Kevin gives Chiron with his sexuality is absolutely demolished once again in a more assaultive manner and it’s clearly breaking Chiron beyond his own power (having had my own habit of ending up in the principal’s office or police station after a fight, the scene where Chiron is badgered by an official to report it was where the film hit me hardest. I swear to Odin, my fingers were digging into my palm with how real that scene felt to me again). This time however, Chiron retaliates to the world in a manner that doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should…
… probably because by the time we return one more time to Chiron, he’s now completely shed all his outer vulnerability into the hardest blackest motherfucker out of the cell block (another thing that no other white director would be able to do – put the mass incarceration of young black men on the table for discussion without calling attention to it) under the name of “Black” (Rhodes). And he’s doing a great job at letting this persona be his shield to stifle and suffocate the boy we met earlier in the film, but not as well as Rhodes is at letting glimpses of him show up all around the first half of the segment before it starts really struggling to breakout when he gets a surprise phone call from Kevin once again (Andre Holland) and that brings back all the complex emotions he wanted to pretend weren’t there in the first place. And this is inarguably the strongest segment of the film, largely because after the first two segments, we have a feel for the pacing and structure of each segment and know in advance exactly which beat this third (and the film entirely) will end, making its choice of ending point still more frustrating in the best way possible.
The things demanded of Rhodes to play both a shadow of the actors who played Chiron before him and to balance that with a muted gangster facade is surprisingly complex acting from an actor I didn’t even know existed, let alone was capable of providing possibly my favorite performance of the year (and I’m excited to see what he does in Terrence Malick’s next film Weightless) and he drives the third act by letting his inner commentary map out the growing emotional tension with his reunion with Kevin. Holland for his part fills in the silence Rhodes gives their scenes with his charm and smile, but it’s not his hour – it’s Rhodes’ and it’s only on Rhodes’ final word that the movie feels like it’s brought the story of Chiron’s reckoning with his attitude about who he truly is where it needed to reach.
The entire cast is why the movie works so well. Even in the arch stage-driven manner of not only the dialogue between characters, but in the blocking of those dialogue scenes (including the same scene that’s gonna get Ali the Oscar nomination), the cast brings a respect to a side of African-American culture that is constantly relegated to caricature and stereotype and even the small size of the primary cast doesn’t stop the Miami of Moonlight from feeling lived-in and surrounding. And the three Chiron actors do a really impressive sleight, they make it three segments feel like one long stream without trying to pretend we’re not watching three different segments. It’s funny how every review I’ve read has had a different attitude on how little they look and like who looks more like who (personally, I feel Rhodes looks nothing like the young actors while I can see how an Alex Hibbert could grow into an Ashton Sanders). The screening I saw Moonlight at had all three actors (as well the two younger Kevins, one of the bullies, McCraney, and Jenkins) in attendance and they looked nothing alike, but they still got me thinking they were the same person. Their consecutive performances and how they only changed patiently over segments brought more smoothness to the structure of the film than all the crafty editing possibly could.
If there is any real gripe I could possibly have, Moonlight feels just as little less mechanical – but still mechanical as every other indie breakout picture of the 2010s has been. I nodded to how obviously this is still a stage script however Jenkins tries to beat it to film form, but Moonlight wants to be recognized for how it does the things it does, rather than just letting itself get away with the trick. Visual flourishes like surrounding circular Steadicam shots revolving around characters and the deepest blues to telegraph what’s happening in moments and overt usage of classical music with slow-motion where its better to let the audience sink into the moment without realizing it. But even that feels like a stretch – these aren’t creative decisions by Jenkins that are illiterate towards film vocabulary and they’re not decisions made flippantly. In a lot of the visuals, we get a much more David Gordon Green atmosphere to outdoors Miami – besides the two slickly shot beach scenes – that show both a love for the city Jenkins and McCraney come from (they’re more affectionate for Miami than yours truly, but that’s not a tall order) and a knowledge in how conditions are in the humid city. They’re just not nearly as delicate as the film requests.
But then Moonlight just as well sits between a spot like Chiron in toughness and vulnerability that it doesn’t have quite the need to grapple with. Losing more of the arch staginess of the dialogue scenes, I think, would lose more of McCraney’s authorship and I think that’s pretty important to retain as Queer cinema. And I’m not sure if Moonlight could be any more restrained about itself before the different branches of its themes become invisible. The Moonlight we have is still a moving work of visual poetry and if I were even half as capable of the things Jenkins does in the movie, I’d probably flaunt each at least at one point. No need to try to shut himself down and pretend to be any other director, that’d probably go against the moral of the film to begin with, no?