Film review: Moonlight (Director: Barry Jenkins)
By Sascha Krieger
In the moonlight, all black boys look blue. A drug dealer repeats this sentence, heard as a child from an old lady, to a young, shy, bullied boy. At the end of the film, we see the boy, in the moonlight at the beach, looking back at us, shining blue. Between this unfolds what was rightly – though clumsily – named the year’s best film at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight tells the story of a black boy who starts out as „Little“, a tiny, shy, silent, soft-seeming boy bullied by his peers. Hiding in a drug hole, he is discovered by a dealer, Juan, who becomes an unlikely surrogate father while the drugs he sells the boy’s mother begin to destroy any home the boy has had. This is part one. Part two is called „Chiron“, the boy’s real name. Now a teenager but more an outsider than ever he experiences the pangs of being different, struggles with a broken home and his blossoming sexuality which only confirms to him that he’s not like the rest. At the end he makes a choice that brings him to part three, „Black“, the name he once rejected and now adopts. It’s the name of a tough drug dealer with a drug dealer’s muscle, a drug dealer’s style, a drug dealer’s car. A man who’s conforming to role models he sees around him, to a dominating interpretation of masculinity, to what he has learned is what a man is supposed to be like. A man who’s become what he thinks the world wants him to be. A man who seems to have forgotten who he is.
Moonlight is a force of nature, a magic fairy-tale, social drama, coming of age and coming out story, an impressionistic poem. All of this and so much more. The tree chapters convey concreteness and universality, they remind of the old phase-style narration of human life, but with a twist. Is the tough, intimidating cliché drug dealer in the closet really more mature than the scared but curious little boy? The chapters are impressionistic sketches, glimpses of moments in a boy’s/young man’s life. There is not continuous narrative, the viewer pays brief visits to the protagonist’s world and life and always knows they’re just an onlooker, having to leave again soon. James Laxton’s stunning cinematography is in constant flux, a dynamic fluidity that gives an impression of the flow of life, a steady stream that swells and fizzles out, that one day leaves you on dry land only to threaten to drown you the next day. Realism turns intotender dreams and scary nightmares as the protagonist becomes the filter through which we see the world even as we seem to looking at him from the outside. A multi-perspective impressionist painting in deep, full, shadowy colours, a nocturnal sketch, a melancholic blues song that could be an aria or a symphony, driven by Nicholas Britell’s suggestive, ambivalent, haunting score.
The confusion of a black boy growing up in a white world, tucked away in his black-only colour which he isn’t supposed to leave (and doesn’t). The pain of growing up and trying to find out who you are while everyone’s telling you who you’re supposed to be. The slow, disrupted, resisted development of a sexual identity outside the norm. adolescence. Being black. Being gay. Three coming of age scenarios, sometimes separate, sometimes intertwined in a choking confusion. But always: the feeling of not belonging, of being different, of being the other. This feeling is what makes Moonlight what it is because it embodies and expresses it, gives it a voice, colours, images, sound – and a face. Three faces, to be precise: those of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Beautiful, haunted and haunting faces, confused, shut down, rejected and rejecting faces who bury the real under the expected. Being under constant siege breeds violence, demands toughness, encourages a culture that in turn seems to justify further ostracisation. Chiron is part of this vicious circle, lives it, embodies it, and may, as the tender, unassuming quietness of the film’s ending suggests. Because there is hope: in the stubbornness of one’s feelings, the inexplicable kindness of those whose job is to destroy (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s Juan) and the equally puzzling destructiveness of those who love (Naomie Harris‘ devastating portrait of a mother). Of course, Moonlight is the product of and a comment on an American society that has never bothered to seriously solve its racist history leading to a present that still knows, uses and weaponises the term „minority“, but it is also a universal tale of how hard it is to be human, to be oneself, to even find out what the hell that means. A masterpiece? That sounds to small for this unlikely miracle.