As of late there has been a lot of talk in the critical community about the representation of minorities on screen and while this discussion has definitely done a lot of good, there have been some negative side effects. This is hard to talk about without sounding like some “anti-political correctness” nut but to put it bluntly: I feel like the zeal to champion works that present the lives of minorities and women has led to a few movies maybe getting extra little boosts they may or may not deserve the lavish praise they get. That’s not to say critics are going to praise every movie that happens to have minority characters (Tyler Perry, for one, has not benefitted much from the era of the woke critic) but all too often it feels like when a movie about a minority comes along that even comes to feeling like something worth championing certain critics just go over-board and start acting like the film is an instant classic when it may merely be good. One of the more prominent examples of this recently was when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance amid the #OscarSoWhite controversy to rapturous applause and buzz only to seem a lot more flawed once everybody calmed down and took another look at it. This is a shame because it’s led to me putting my guard up when critically acclaimed movies about certain subject matters come along. For instance, last year when the movie Tangerine came out I found myself thinking “hmmm, it this really as good as they say it is, or is a movie about transsexual African Americans just too “relevant” for people not to love,” which unfortunately means I put off watching what was really a boldly made and highly entertaining movie. Similarly I’ve got to say I was a little skeptical about Moonlight, a film about underprivileged African American homosexuals: was it the real deal or did the zeitgeist get critics to over-reach again.
The film follows a single character named Chiron through three stages of his life where he’s played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively. In the first segment we watch Chiron as a young child interacting with a guy named Juan (Mahershala Ali), after running into him by chance. Juan almost accidentally finds himself becoming a father figure to Chiron despite being a rather dubious role model himself. In the second segment we see Chiron as an awkward teenager whose demeanor makes him an outsider in his school but who forms something of a tenuous friendship with a boy named Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in this segment). That segment ends with something of a turning point in Chiron’s life and for the third segment we move into the characters’ late twenties where we find out the type of person the two previous segments have wrought.
The three segments of the film are about the same characters and do form a greater whole when taken together, but are surprisingly self-contained in some ways and could probably be recut into separate somewhat self-contained short films if the director had wanted to with each of the segments kind of having the structure and resonance you’d expect out of a literary short story. The first segment (dubbed “little”) takes the interesting approach of beginning not with the film’s main protagonist but with a side character named Juan who will be absent from the other two sections of the triptych. While not exclusively told from Juan’s perspective, many of the scenes in this section are told from his point of view, in part because he (being as he’s an adult) he’s easier for the audience to relate to and is aware of things that young Chiron is not. The segment also serves as something of a sign of things to come as Juan, while well intentioned, is not necessarily the ideal father figure he initially seems. The middle segment is probably the most conventional of the three, but also probably the strongest and shows the character at something of a turning point. I’m going to refrain from talking about segment three, as it is the one that most goes in a direction you don’t expect but needless to say it is clear that that’s what the movie is leading up to for a reason.
In preparation for seeing Moonlight I watched Barry Jenkins’ first (and before now only) feature film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, and wasn’t really a fan of it. That film, like this one, was very interested in depicting a facet of the black community that doesn’t get seen very often but didn’t really succeed at doing much of anything else. It was a Before Sunrise kind of thing where two fairly affluent African Americans have conversations about gentrification and black identity while having a brief affair. Emphasis on “conversations.” That was not a movie that was interested in the “show don’t tell rule” and I could have gotten over that if the characters didn’t seem so mopey and passionless. Moonlight isn’t devoid of moments that are a little on the nose, but it certainly employs more subtlety than that earlier effort and it’s a lot easier to connect with the characters and their tensions. Also, I don’t know what Jenkins has been doing in the eight years since he made Medicine for Melancholy but he has definitely improved as a visual stylist. The film has some very nice looking cinematography by James Laxton that really captures the Florida heat and Jenkins frequently makes some interesting choices in shot length and angle selection.
If I have any major complaint about Moonlight it’s one that’s kind of a backhanded compliment: it could be longer. The film’s triptych format is interesting, but it leaves a lot of gaps. The jump between the second and third segments in particular seems leave a whole lot of the character’s growth obscured. Perhaps instead of three long segments I might have preferred four or five, maybe even six or seven segments following this character through multiple different ages. This would have made the film resemble Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in many ways, and given how self-contained and quiet this character is that extra time would have been particularly useful in helping the audience understand him. On the other hand this likely wouldn’t have been filmed over twelve years and switching actors that frequently throughout the movie might have been more than a bit jarring and cause a bigger disconnect. Maybe it really is better that the film simply lets the audience connect the dots between each story segment, but I do still think there’s something missing here that I can’t quite place my finger on. Either way this is a very strong effort that deserves the attention of anyone interested in this year’s better cinematic works.