by Niyobuhungiro Godfroid
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight tells the story of a young boy as he struggles with questions of identity and life in Miami’s ghettos. The film and the story stay away from gruesome depictions of the inner city and instead focus on the psychological experience of its main character Chiron. Outwardly, it is a story about a gay black male dealing with issues of sexuality, identity, and manhood. At its core, however, it is a work clearly concerned with a universal feeling of loss and rejection. Throughout the film’s three acts the audience is placed in Chiron’s shoes and sees both the beauty and pains of his life, the audience comes to deeply empathize with a character whose specific circumstances are singular but whose mental and emotional life feel universal.
Moonlight is a careful combination and adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In The Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and Barry Jenkins's childhood. The men most responsible for the film tell a story of growing up in poverty, in drug-addled neighborhoods and families, and startling discrimination, yet the film is hardly concerned with those depictions. The characters dominate the film, and the external circumstances that deleteriously affect their lives are present but take a backseat to the characters’ emotional lives. This arrangement allows for character development that goes beyond the film viewer’s assumptions and expectations of the characters. The tough and ruthless drug dealer is not just that; he is a complex person whose identity as a drug-dealer colors his character, but ultimately says little of his internal life. It is appropriate then that Mahershala Ali’s drug-dealing character, Juan, is Chiron’s only guiding force. In Juan, Chiron finds a caring and affectionate friend and mentor—a father figure with faults but one who nonetheless becomes Chiron’s saving grace.
Moonlight’s success also lies in its artful visual and audio presentation. It is filmed for the audience to feel and experience the film the same way a child might experience youth. Miami’s lush greenery, sunshine, and beaches are used to surprising effect. The grand and atmospheric images of Miami conjured by tourist expectations of the city are nowhere to be found. Instead, Miami is a kind of self-contained island that acts as a small character of its own. Decrepit homes are juxtaposed with front yards with waving tropical greenery. Moments of extreme intensity are accompanied by moments of graceful calm and tranquility. Jenkins achieves this feat by lacing scenes with colors arousing certain emotions, adding high audio volumes followed by sudden silences in difficult scenes, and emphasizing the actors’ measured performances. In combination, these techniques create a heartbreaking film that perfectly captures Chiron’s difficult reality.
The film has garnered rave reviews, both for its artistic vision and for its honest depiction of characters whose experiences are rarely seen on the national stage. Moonlight both represents and humanizes its characters, and it recognizes the real-life characters, beyond Jenkins and McCraney, who inspired the film. By highlighting the social torments faced by black, gay, and poor Americans, Moonlight strikes a chord that speaks to the struggles faced by a great many of us. It is particularly important that this film exists in light of how little space and recognition Hollywood has given to minority stories. There have been a number successful films that have related the struggles and social oppression faced LGBTQ characters yet this film stands out. Most of these films, like most other Hollywood releases, have focused almost exclusively on the stories of affluent white Americans. Hollywood has rarely taken the time to recognize a character like Chiron—black, poor, mentally and physically abused. It is only in 2017 that the Academy Awards managed to find enough space for Chiron, to feel his experience as worthy of mainstream recognition and acknowledgement.
For the first time in the Oscar’s history, a black American is nominated for every category available. Three films featuring black American stories are up for Best Picture and one black director, Barry Jenkins, is a nominee for Best Director. This and similar recognition in television, with hits like Insecure, Atlanta, Black-ish, and Master of None, have increasingly introduced non-white Americans into national conversations. Minority characters have historically been given such limited space in the medium that the existence and success of these programs and films is a cause for celebration. The stories they tell are not simply entertainment, they are an acknowledgement of minority people’s contribution, worth, and belonging.