First things first, this will not be a review. There are a million of those on-line and they are all glowing. They range from “it’s the best movie of 2016” to “we’ve never seen anything like this, done like this, before”. Also, the studio, A24 gave me a free movie ticket to see Moonlight, which is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. While it will have zero bearing on what I write, I feel like it’s necessary to acknowledge. Thanks, booboo.
Also, there aren’t any spoilers, but reader beware; there are some plot points that I specifically speak to even if I don't get specific.
1. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a movie that has caused this much discussion in a non-negative way (I’m looking at you Nate Parker + Birth Of A Nation). I saw this movie last Wednesday evening. Since then, I’ve had at least eight DIFFERENT in depth discussions about the themes of the movie, the believability of certain scenes, what the movie was actually about, the ending, and the social implications. If you’re looking for a movie that will most likely spur conversations after it’s over, Moonlight is your drink of choice. Unlike, say, Dear White People, which surprised me in that I literally had zero to say about it once I left the theater. I believe I said to my movie companion, “well, that was, you know what, let’s go to Golden Corral.”
2. I’m not sure exactly how good I think it is. It's nowhere near a bad movie, just I’m not sure if it’s a good movie so much as it’s an interesting and compelling one with themes that we don’t see frequently. It for damn sure looks wonderful visually. Barry Jenkins did a great job with the cinematography (I’m also a huge fan of Medicine for Melancholy, his 2008 film that is a must see for anybody who loves indy films), and the visual flourishes and all that cinema talk is present and accounted for. So as a piece of art, it wins. Like, if you ask me if it was a “good” movie, I’ll probably say, “I don’t know but you should definitely see it." I realize that makes no sense. But, it is provocative even if nobody knows what it means.
3. Mahershala Ali aka Cottonmouth aka Remy Danton aka Juan (in Moonlight) has tremendous screen presence. While his role is somewhat truncated in this film, he looms large over it as both an inspiration and an answer to the question: just how complex CAN a drug dealer be? Do you remember in The Wire after String Bell was killed by Omar and Brother Mouzone – that was not a spoiler by the way, the shit happened OVER 10 years ago at this point – and McNulty went into his apartment, looked over his books and art, and questioned aloud, “who was I chasing?” There’s a bit of that in Juan. There’s a ton of depth in his character based on just ONE short conversation he has with Little, the early childhood version of the main character, Chiron. I’ve had several conversations about how likely (or believable) his character’s actions are. I believe them, but I can understand how folks might conclude it’s a stretch.
4. The movie itself is broken into three acts: I. Little (the derisive nickname of Chiron to his friends when they’re, 8, maybe?), II. Chiron (high school "Little" going by his birth name, struggling with identity and life in the tumultuous world of hood Miami), and III. Black (what happens when the kid who gets picked on reinvents himself after he goes away to another place). My favorite acts were the first two.
5. The act featuring Little was, to me, the most compelling. You’ve got this little boy with a crackhead mother who fends for himself mostly, befriending the neighborhood drug dealer, Juan, and his girlfriend Teresa (more on her later), learning about who he is and how he’s perceived while trying to understand himself. He’s dealing with identity questions that adults never fully figure out. In a movie about sadness, this act was a watershed because as a little kid he’s at his most vulnerable and everybody knows it. Until he meets Juan, it almost seems like nobody cares (save for his friend Kevin, though at this stage, friend might be a strong word). Watching this little boy live in isolation surrounded by people made me feel helpless, because I know his story isn’t unique.
6. Act II, Chiron, was also very compelling for similar reasons. Now he’s grown, fending for life on his own dealing with high school problems of esteem, identity, and hyper-masculinity from every angle drowning in uncertainty holding onto the few positive relationships he has, but so guarded that he barely speaks. His mother is worse for the wear. His life has taken on a significant loss. And he finds a sole, solitary moment of affection in the "oddest" place. And then reality sets in. Reality, as they say, bites.
7. Act III, which features Black, the adult version of Chiron, is interesting in that Chiron seems to have taken on an actual identity, an homage to his mentor, Juan, really, that seems to have pushed all of the uncertainty and insecurity of his youth towards the recesses of his psyche. Except it's a stretch. He’s “found” himself even if it’s not necessarily authentic. And it all unravels when an old friend comes a callin’. I won’t speak directly to this, but you get to see how a facade can slowly melt away.
8. If anything, Moonlight, for me, is a movie about moments that carry so much weight and depth: the life moments of peace between Juan and Little; Chiron and Kevin sitting and talking on the beach; moments of decision that alter Chiron and Kevin's lives; Black as an adult at the diner, etc. This movie, and each act are panel discussions waiting to happen.
9. Juan’s girlfriend is Teresa, played by Janelle Monae. She is probably the most complex, non-addressed character in the movie. Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother and you can see the depth (she did a great job there) with which she functioned from the beginning to the end as she’s an active presence in the movie. Teresa shows up physically a few times but mostly in spirit and name. I needed more Teresa. She could have easily been a suburban housewife as much as that of a drug dealer. I wanted to see more interactions with her and Chiron; she was dominant figure in his life through all phases. But mostly I wanted her backstory. It’s not necessarily a fault of the film, but her character was so curious to me I wanted to know how she and Juan met and how they managed to stay together (though Juan at home was clearly different than Juan in the street). Teresa was the probably the only positive woman in Chiron’s entire life, and they barely scratched that surface.
10. The music is awesome. You'd think I'd be into significant depth here, but it's just easier to say that the music plays a fairly substantial role in the movie and you can tell real time and care was taken to curate the soundscape. As a music person, I appreciate that. The same can be said for Medicine for Melancholy, so I'm guessing that's a calling card for Barry Jenkins. I'm here for it.
11. I’ve made it this far without addressing what is the main premise of the film: Black men dealing with masculinity issues. Chiron is a boy dealing with his sexuality after having been judged about his perceived sexuality for years, finding solace in very few places. Each male in this movie is dealing with their own version of masculinity. Chiron is a gay boy/man, but the movie doesn’t rest on the premise alone. It’s just one of the areas he has to address as a man. Many of the reviews do a much better job than I could of speaking to the degrees of masculinity present, but each version presented offers an opportunity to revisit one’s own perception of what it means to be a man. While I don’t think this movie goes anywhere near as far as The Wire’s Omar does in making you DIRECTLY question every idea of what a gay man is, Moonlight dives in and explores the facets of manhood, of which being gay is one potential. It is a pool for which a bottom may never be reached.