Moonlight: Identity and Race

Last week, when I wrote about The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I wrote how that movie was, up to this point, the last epic movie to win Best Picture. In the decade and a half since then, the Academy has slowly but surely moved in an opposite direction, going from blockbusters to more artsy movies from independent studios. This is not to say that there are no more good movies.
But this is not the only problem that the Academy faces. For two years before the 89th Academy Awards, the Academy was roasted in the media and online about it’s lack of racial diversity within the show itself. To be fair, the blame for this lies on both the Academy and the industry at large. For years, Hollywood has been a primarily white institution and there were simply no great films made that featured a minority cast.
Moonlight, this week’s winner directed by Barry Jenkins changed that. The movie became the first Best Picture winner to have an all African American cast and the first winner to have an LGBT theme. With this win, the Academy tried to respond to these charges of being too white. Just because there is a movie about a gay African American man, representing the struggle of two minority communities, that doesn’t make it good automatically. But that’s not Moonlight. Jenkins uses a period of years to tell a tragic and uplifting story about Chiron and his struggle growing up gay in impoverished Miami.

It’s a very specific, character-driven story that is never preachy and never moralizes to the audience. The movie takes on very complicated issues like identity, sexuality, love, poverty, and masculinity. Moonlight dives deep into these issues and comes out sterling on the other side, giving us not only a very powerful message about life, but also a great movie, too.
Now, for the rest of the movie.

Plot
Moonlight is a movie about one man’s struggle to find himself over time. Therefore, it takes place during different parts of his life. Arranged into three parts, “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” the movie shows us the struggle of coming to grips with not only Chiron’s life, but it’s also reflective of all our lives.

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In “Little,” we’re introduced to Chiron as a boy, played by Alex Hibbert, as he’s being chased by a pack of bullies through the ghettos of Miami. He finds his way into a crack house where he’s discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug dealer. Juan takes Chiron, who we learn is called “Little” by his peers, an insult regarding his diminutive size, back to his house where he and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) allow him to stay the night.
The next day, Little is returned home to his mother (Naomie Harris), who was worried sick about where he was. Over time, Juan becomes the needed father figure in Chiron’s life, teaching him to swim, quieting his fears, and encouraging him to be his own person, regardless of what society thinks you should be.
When the story progresses to “Chiron” it’s several years later and Chiron, this time played by Ashton Sanders, is in high school. He’s largely friendless and an outcast, constantly scorned by the school bully Terrell (Patrick Decile). Chiron is gay, a fact that we find out slowly during the course of the story.
As his mother slowly degrades into all-out drug addiction and his home life suffers, Chiron meets his only friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) one night at the beach, the same beach where Juan taught Chiron how to swim. The two share an intimate exchange, reflecting on life, and end the night kissing in the moonlight.
At school the next day, Kevin is manipulated by Terrell to beat Chiron, causing Chiron to physically assault Terrell in retaliation. The act ends with Chiron glaring at Kevin as Chiron is driven off in a police car, awaiting his fate through the legal system.
Finally, “Black” is the examination of Chiron as a young man, who now goes by the nickname “Black,” played by Trevante Rhodes. I won’t give too much away here, but Black is a man hardened by his past, repressing who he really is while also becoming a drug dealer in Atlanta, just like Juan.

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His mother keeps calling him to visit him in a drug rehabilitation center, which he puts off. Finally, Kevin calls Black and apologizes for his actions and invites him to go back to Miami.
Throughout the movie’s entire 111-minute running time, I was enthralled with this story. Injecting us into the chaotic life of a boy, teenager, and then man that is Chiron by many names, the story shows us a tragic, yet deeply personal tale of sexuality, expression, masculinity, and finding your way in this crazy world. 1.

Writing/Dialogue
Winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Moonlight was adapted for the screen by director Barry Jenkins and the story was based on the unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
On the surface, the dialogue is very disjointed, sparse, and not really correct. This is fine though. The dialogue makes it more original and authentic to the setting: the ghettos of Miami.
But the most striking part of the dialogue is actually what’s not said throughout the movie, and this is what speaks the most about the troubles in Chiron’s life and the world he lives in. Chiron is normally quiet and tends to keep his emotions, thoughts, and feelings bottled up.

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An example of this is early in the movie when the relationship between Little and Juan is unfolding, Little asks Juan what a homophobic slur means. This question is out of the blue. Instantly, and without even needing to be told, the viewer knows what this means; Little has been harassed at school because of his perceived homosexuality. 1.

Sound
Garnering a nomination for Best Original Score was composer Nicholas Britell. The score features a wide range of compositions from hip hop to pieces inspired by classical works. Interestingly enough is how the sound portrays what’s happening not only to Little/Chiron/Black, but also what happening around him. Classical pieces serve a dual purpose: on one hand, the classical portrays Chiron disconnecting from reality, trying to find his inner peace and detach himself from horrible things in his life. On the other hand, the classical music reflects a serene feeling from the other minor characters in a particular scene.

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The other use of sound comes from the environment. In most movies, particularly in modern ones, audio tracks can be piled on top of one another, making for an immersive sound experience. Moonlight is no exception. The sound of the environment is thrust in our faces like it would be to Chiron. Also, the beach is where Chiron feels truly at peace, making trips there with Juan, and then the later meet up with Kevin. Chiron often retreats into himself, using both the classical music and the beach sounds (waves crashing, wind blowing) to find solace in a chaotic world. 1.

Set Design
Shot primarily in Miami, the set for Moonlight is almost an afterthought. In a movie based solely on character, the actual look of the world is not that important in relation to the rest of the movie. This contrasts starkly with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where the world was everything. Without the world, the movie wouldn’t exist.

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Instead, the setting is very much “lived in” with Jenkins preferring to use real life Miami ghettos and housing projects to showcase his story. It’s not fancy, but it works. The set must match the tone of the movie perfectly, and this one is a master class in doing that. The movie reminds me of Rocky’s set. Moonlight, like Rocky just takes place somewhere, but nowhere special. 1.

Cinematography
James Laxton was Moonlight’s director of photography and his style could not be more different than what I talked about last week with The Return of the King. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not effective, earning Laxton a nomination for the camera work.

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Firstly, the cinematography demonstrates how very personal this movie is. Often interjecting us within the action and the conflict, the movie is a showcase of emotional and intimate close-ups. It makes us part of the action. An example of this is when Kevin is forced to beat Chiron. We see how each punch pains Kevin and how each hit demoralizes Chiron, torturing him until he finally does not get up.

Second, the cinematography portrays both calamity and serenity. This can be seen from the start of the movie to the end. Using a combination of steady shots on a tripod and a camera on the shoulder, the shots dart back and forth between calm (tripod or cart) and chaotic (shoulder). The calmness gives us a sense of peace and is often used to evoke coolness or joy. The shoulder camera on the other hand give us an inside look at Chiron’s brain and emotions. Accepting that he’s gay and dealing with being an outcast, Chiron’s life is calamitous in every degree. The shoulder camera shots display this perfectly. 1.

Acting
As I’ve stated before, Moonlight is a character-driven story. Therefore, Barry Jenkins had to have the perfect cast for the movie, and he nails it. There are great performances across the board, but I want to focus on two characters played by four different actors: Chiron and Juan.
Again, young Chiron, or Little, was played by Alex Hibbert, teenage Chiron was played by Ashton Sanders, and older Chiron, or Black, was played by Trevante Rhodes.

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From the beginning, we see that Chiron is a character who is constantly persecuted. He knew he was different, even from a young age. He doesn’t trust many people, and didn’t trust Juan at the start of their relationship.
He’s a character of few words during the short blips of time that we see him. For most of his young life, Chiron in all forms is introspective, contemplating what I believe is his life, the world, and his place in it. Life is complicated for Chiron, for all of us really, but his is an especially difficult journey due to his degrading family life and his nature of being a social outcast. Chiron lives in a hyper masculine world that he can’t escape from, but desperately needs to.
Throughout his life, he thinks of Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor), the neighborhood drug dealer who becomes a father figure in his life. But even Juan is not perfect. When Juan discovers Chiron’s mother doing drugs that he sold to the person she’s with, he becomes keenly aware of the his role in this society and his role in not only building up young Chiron’s life, but also tearing it down.

Juan is a cool man with a tender heart. He’s not easily flustered or angered and he’s also very practical in his approach to life. Juan is a stabilizing force for Chiron, even when that stabilization comes at a cost. He never lies to Chiron, even admitting that he sells drugs to Chiron’s mother, realizing that Chiron is one that deserves his respect and his honesty, lest the relationship suffer. 1.

Directing
Barry Jenkins directed Moonlight and the effort garnered a nomination for Best Director. Jenkins, a native of Miami, used his home city to showcase what is, so far in his short career, his best work.
First, and most importantly, Moonlight is a movie about identity. When Juan take Chiron to the beach, Juan explains that Chiron must make his own life, and be his own person, regardless of what society tells him.

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Like that journey for the rest of us, it isn’t easy. Well into his life, Chiron still struggles with loss and love, his identity and his passion. Chiron’s life, and his journey from his world, are two things that I can’t understand. I’m not a minority, I don’t come from poverty, nor am I gay. But Jenkins knows this.
Rather than the movie showing overtly showing us, or even telling us through dialogue, what Chiron’s life is like, Jenkins chooses instead to feed us little nuggets here and there about his struggle. This makes Chiron relatable. We, as the audience, are able to slowly enter his life of poverty, an American dream that’s passed over his neighborhood, and walk tender steps in his shoes. By the end of the movie, we know all of Chiron’s flaws, yet we still root for him to find his love and his happiness. We’re fully invested in him.
Most interestingly, though, is Jenkin’s dual commentary about Chiron’s hyper-masculine world. Jenkins focuses here on the twisted expectation of what African American society says it means to be a man. He’s outcast not only because he’s gay, but because he doesn’t fit a tough guy standard in the eyes of some of his peers. His loudest detractors are also those with worst sense about what it means to be a man. To me, as a dude, this was very relatable and helped me to truly sympathize with Chiron, even though he and I come from two very different walks of life. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m giving a bonus point to directing, writing, and acting.
Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
Moonlight won the 89th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 26, 2017 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea for Best Picture. The award was presented by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and accepted by Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner. In total, Moonlight was nominated for eight awards, winning three. La La Land took home the most awards with six, out of a total of 14 nominations.
Other notable winners that night included Damien Chazelle winning Best Director for La La Land, Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea, Emma Stone winning Best Actress for La La Land, and Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences.
Perhaps the biggest gaff in the show’s history took place during the announcement of the night’s biggest award. With Beatty and Dunaway one stage, the pair were handed the incorrect envelope (which held a poorly designed card, I might add) and announced that La La Land (one of the most nominated films in history) had won Best Picture. Instead, Beatty and Dunaway were handed the card for Emma Stone’s win for Best Actress just minutes before. During the acceptance speeches for La La Land, producers came on the stage and calamity ensued. In the days following the mistake, PricewaterhouseCoopers was excoriated for the mistake while the crew of La La Land were praised for their professionalism. This moment, in my mind, ranks above Shacheen Littlefeather’s refusal of Marlon Brando’s Best Actor win for The Godfather as the most jaw dropping moments in the history of the ceremony.

The ceremony was hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.

Next Week
We leave the 21st century next week and head back to the 1960s for only our second film thus far from that decade: Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. After that, it’s Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Great Ziegfeld, and Rain Man.

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