Hot Take: The most important film of 2016. The respect Moonlight shows its characters and its subject matter is something to admire and strive for.
Last year, I thought Room should have won Best Picture. Spotlight won instead. It was hard to argue considering the importance of Spotlight and the gravity of the subject matter. This year, we have Moonlight. Currently, it isn’t at the top of my list for 2016 but it’s high up there. If Moonlight walks away with every award this Oscar season, I won’t complain for a second. As far as the timeliness and subject, this movie matters more than any other film released in 2016 so far and I doubt any other film will reach the importance or handle such important topics with the delicacy and respect that Moonlight does.
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
Moonlight is essentially a coming-of-age film although summing it up in such a way does the film a disservice. The main character Chiron is played by three actors. We meet Chiron as a child when he’s known as Little (Alex Hibbert). Little is bullied by the other kids, raised by his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) who is also a crackhead and befriended by the local drug lord Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Little’s best friend is Kevin (Jaden Piner) who looks out for Little and the two form a bond that feels more than just friends. The first act deals with Little’s struggles with growing up. The other kids refer to him as a “faggot” which he doesn’t understand the meaning of. In one of the film’s many powerful scenes, Juan explains to Little when asked that it is okay to be gay but no one should ever call you a faggot. It’s also the scene where Little confronts Juan about being a drug dealer and walks out of Juan’s house when Juan tells him the truth.
Scenes like the one above are throughout Moonlight. This film touches you in ways you might not have realized you could be. In the second act, Little has now grown up to be a teen and has mostly ditched his nickname to be referred to as Chiron (Ashton Sanders). He’s now bullied daily by Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his mother’s drug abuse has reached new heights. She’s selling her body for drugs and taking money from her own son to get crack. Teresa is still an important figure in Chiron’s life even though we find out Juan is deceased. Outside of his relationship with Teresa, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is his only friend. As Chiron deals with his sexual identity, we watch his relationship with Kevin grow. The two have a long discussion on the beach near Kevin’s house one night which develops into a sexual encounter. This is another one of those memorable, powerful scenes done with such a level of care and decency, it’s truly impressive. Once returning to school, Kevin is bullied by Terrel to beat up Chiron. After taking a beating from Kevin and then finished off by Terrel’s gang, Chiron is left a bloody mess. Despite the pressure of the police, Chiron chooses not to identify his attackers. Instead, he snaps and breaks a wooden chair over the back of Terrel’s head when he returns to class and then continues to beat on him until he’s separated from Terrel and arrested. It’s one of the most moving scenes you’ll see in a film.
The film advances to an older Chiron who now goes by Black (Trevante Rhodes) which is the nickname given to him in his teen years by Kevin. Black has moved from Miami to Atlanta and leads a life that mimics Juan. He sells drugs, runs the corners and even drives the same type of car. His mother calls him frequently asking him to visit. He also receives a call from Kevin (Andre Holland) out of the blue who also suggests Chiron come visit. Eventually, Chiron goes to visit his mother. We find out she’s in rehab, working on getting clean and seeking forgiveness for the way she brought up Chiron. She realizes she wasn’t much of a mother but wants Chiron to know she loves him now even though she couldn’t love him the way he needed to be loved growing up. Chiron and his mother have a tear-filled exchange and Chiron lets his mother know he forgives her. After visiting his mother, Chiron visits Kevin who is now a short order cook in a diner in Miami. The two reminisce about the past even though Chiron is initially reluctant to speak much when they first encounter each other. At this point in the film, we realize this is just Chiron. Kevin makes Chiron a meal and the two talk and drink wine throughout Kevin’s shift until the restaurant closes. Chiron ends up giving Kevin a ride to his apartment and staying the night where he confides in Kevin that he’s the only person who he’s ever had a sexual encounter with. The film closes with showing Chiron and Kevin sharing an intimate moment and a flashback to Little on the beach in the blue moonlight.
Moonlight does so much in two hours. Writer/director Barry Jenkins takes you on an amazing, transformative journey and provides insight on so many topics without sensationalizing any of the details. The subtleness of Moonlight is where it shines. It’s a moving masterwork that if it somehow leaves you unaffected, you probably don’t have feelings in the first place. The beauty is never lost in the bleakness of the story and watching Little/Chiron/Black change shape but never really lose his true identity is something to behold. It’s Jenkins’ attention to detail that allow us to take the journey with his character rather than watching from a distance. There are moments where you can feel the pain of the character coming through the screen. You also feel those rare moments when Chiron isn’t suffering and finds a fleeting moment of joy.
I walked away from Moonlight with a different perspective and feel like I see things in a new light. To me, that’s one of the biggest compliments I can pay a film. It is the most human film I’ve seen this year. In years, actually. It shoves nothing down your throat but rather puts its cards on the table for you to see and form your own thoughts about what is unfolding. It lacks the manipulation of other works of its kind and is much more powerful because of it.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Oscar Worthy
Not only for Best Picture, Jenkins could (and should) receive a nomination for his directorial work and could (and should) receive a nomination for his writing. In addition, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali would be good nominees for their supporting roles.
I don’t think I remember a film that deals with the inner city drug culture without showing one drug deal or one gunshot. This is just one example of how the film uses its story rather than sensationalistic tactics to further its story.