Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.
Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.
The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.
I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.
The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.
At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.
This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.
Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster…
I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.