This is Part Six of my 2017 Oscar Watch where I watch all of the Best Picture nominees in the weeks running up to the Academy Awards. For other entries, click here:
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “La La Land”
- “Hacksaw Ridge”
- “Hidden Figures”
For all of my 2017 Academy Awards picks, click here.
“Moonlight” is my favorite film of the past year and, possibly, the past ten years. If not for “La La Land” and the Academy’s obsession with Hollywood, I firmly believe that “Moonlight” would have easily won the award for Best Motion Picture. “Moonlight” is a realistic, subtle, and heartbreaking look at the life of a black homosexual man, but it is also a revelatory analysis of hope, loss, triumph, and tragedy.
Even more impressive, this is a film that never could have been made ten years ago—the fact that a near plot-less film about a gay black man exists is groundbreaking on its own merits.
Split into three acts titled “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” “Moonlight” follows Chiron from his childhood, to his teenage years, and finally, into his adult life. This inventive storytelling technique could have made “Moonlight” unbearable as the actor who plays Chiron changes with each transition, but instead it enriches the beauty and power of its central message. Similar to “Manchester by the Sea,” this film is a snapshot of a tragic life, but “Moonlight” expands its scope by decades and delivers powerful, grounded tragedy that never feels outlandish or unearned.
The key conflict at hand is Chiron trying to understand who he is, accepting who he is, and surviving the dangerous world around him—he is as likely to be killed for being gay as he is for being black or for being the son of a crack whore. On paper, the plot of “Moonlight” seems bland or close to the “tragedy porn” moniker that I ascribed to “Manchester by the Sea.” However, this is a masterfully subtle film and Chiron is an immediately sympathetic character—watching him grow from child to adult builds a personal relationship with the character that has simply been unaccomplished in film. Even Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” does not come close to the intense power of “Moonlight.”
You will feel like you know Chiron and you will understand the war that rages in his mind. It is an emotional film that never verges into melodrama. In fact, the climax of the film is a beautifully written conversation between Chiron and Kevin, his first and only lover. Like this quintessential scene, “Moonlight” effortlessly weaves fear, pride, hope, and sadness in every iconic moment.
The three actors who play Chiron as a child, teenager, and adult are Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively—each of them give an inspired performance, but I definitely preferred Hibbert and Rhodes because their sections of the story are the bookends of Chiron’s life. Even still, Sanders plays teenage Chiron equally well and his portion of the story is an effective portrayal of the horrors of high school in an extraordinary situation.
To say much else about the plot of “Moonlight” would spoil the smaller moments that really bring the characters to life. However, I must mention Mahershala Ali who plays Juan, a drug dealer from Chiron’s childhood. Ali’s performance is the immediate spark of this film and yet another argument for the strength of “Moonlight”—Juan is a real character and he brings further depth and heart to an already complex and powerful film. Many will know Ali as Remy in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” but his turn as Juan is easily the performance of his career and I think we will see more of him in future Oscar seasons.
Inspired Direction and Dialogue
It would be a mistake not to mention Barry Jenkins’ strong direction—he brings an artistic eye that searches for symbolism amongst the humid, dangerous streets of Liberty City, Florida. In particular, his focus on the characters’ eyes is very impactful as it brings a deeper understanding of their true character. Of course, his use of lighting, both natural and unnatural is breathtaking whether the characters are bathed in the red glow of neon, pale blue moonlight, or blinding sun. Jenkins has quickly proved himself as one of the best directors in Hollywood and I eagerly await his next film.
Unsurprisingly, the writing here is phenomenal as well. This film will win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, no contest—Jenkins also wrote this adaption of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The script of “Moonlight” is so well written that it entirely disappears; about 30 minutes into the film, you will forget that you’re watching actors who have memorized lines on a sheet of paper. The masterful use of Ebonics and evocative, symbolic diction is astounding. The characters feel real because the dialogue never pushes its dramatic range past realistic and it remains true to the characters who embody the words coming out of their mouths.
“Moonlight” is the best film of the year whether the Academy wants to acknowledge that or not. This is certainly not a movie for everyone, there is very little action in the classical sense, but it embodies a level of depth, tragedy, power, and beauty that films can rarely achieve. “Moonlight” is simply a work of art.