Film Review – Moonlight

Barry Jenkins Moonlight is the subject of an impressive 113 award wins and 196 nominations (and counting), with the acclaimed indie softly asserting itself as the darling of awards season. After the hysteria of last year’s ‘Oscars So White‘ movement, Moonlight appears to be the perfect ideological antidote: centred on black working class characters and with a young gay male character at its forefront. Split into three acts, the first two containing some quiet power, Jenkins’ final piece of trio is where Moonlight comes crashing down.

Adapted and directed by Jenkins, Moonlight chronicles three key stages in the life of young black man, Chiron, from childhood (Alex Hibbert) and his teenage years (Ashton Sanders) to adulthood (Trevante Rhodes). Moonlight delves into his turbulent upbringing, the discovery of his sexuality and his life as a grown man.

The first two of these acts fit seamlessly and Jenkins effectively shows us how the fragile “Little” (young Chiron) and his life with bullying and an abusive mother (Naomie Harris) turns him into the empty, awkward, charisma-free teenager in the second act. However, this is also where cracks start to appear, teenage Chiron is so passive and blank – the perpetual victim, that it’s a struggle to connect or root for him on any emotional level. Instead of turning this into a tale of empowerment or mental transformation, Jenkins revels in the victimisation of Chiron – evoking a tragic sympathy and helplessness from his audience. Unsurprising considering our current ideological climate.

Paired with this victimhood in Moonlight, is the discovery of desire – where seeds are planted in the opening act where young Chiron asks his crack dealing pseudo father (Mahershala Ali) “Am I a faggot?”, one of the most explicit indicators of his sexuality. Yet as a tale about a gay male, Moonlight skirts around Chiron’s homosexuality with cautious unease – a bizarre move for a film with a core theme of desire. Rarely showing Chiron in his teenage years as a being with any real sexual interest, Moonlight vaguely addresses its protagonist’s sexuality in a scene so empty and lacking any sense of aesthetic desire or pleasure that the film’s final act, hinging on this, makes little sense. Instead of focusing on the sensuality or pleasure of this beach-set sexual encounter, Chiron remains devoid of any sense of release or passion. The lightness of Moonlight verges onto parody with lines like “I cry so much I could turn into drops,” taking precedence over any sense of romantic passion or lust. Perhaps a gay filmmaker would have been bolder in their presentation of queer sexuality, with an understanding of the release of this pent up sexual and emotional repression. Odd considering the scope of Moonlight, but it attempts to embrace the sensibilities of diversity – especially in relation to its queerness – without showing too much to discourage a straight audience.

The final act hinges on this sexual encounter where Chiron – now a bulked-up drug dealer complete with an eight-pack, grills and flash car – is still in a state of repression, reliving the vague sexual encounter of his teenage years in his dreams. The fact that Moonlight showcases this physical transformation, but no sense of the power or appetite this man would have as a sexual being presents an off-kilter queerness where Chiron is an odd novelty. Instead of using this as an example to show a queer black man as a sexual being – he remains a stunted curiosity, a testament to the victimhood of his past. Perhaps Jenkins’ film could have embraced some sense of empowerment, transgression and originality by showing a queer black drug-dealer open about his homosexuality – but once again this issue is delicately skirted around.

Whilst the ideology of victimhood is clearly at the heart of Moonlight, Jenkins delivers some interesting aesthetics to appeal to the senses. The hazy Florida visuals make for a gorgeous canvas and allow the dreamlike elements of Moonlight to shine – thanks to cinematographer James Laxton. Performances from Naomie Harris (in Mo’Nique from Precious mode) and the excellent Janelle Monae also impress.

★★1/2| Andrew McArthur

Drama | USA, 2016 | 15 | 17th February 2017 (UK) | Altitude Film | Dir.Barry Jenkins | Mahershala Ali,Naomie Harris,André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Alex Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes