Film Review: “Moonlight” (2016)

“Moonlight” (2016)



Time: 119 minutes

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Featuring: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris

Juan: “I’ve been here a long time. Out of Cuba. A lot of black folks are Cuban. You wouldn’t know from being here now. I was a wild little shortie, man. Just like you. Running around with no shoes on, the moon was out. This one time, I run by this old… this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said…”

Juan: [imitates old lady voice] “Running around, fishing in a boat of light”. “In moonlight, black boys look blue”. “You’re blue”. “That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

Little: “Is your name ‘Blue’?”

Juan: [laughs] “Nah.”

Juan:At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

Maybe the Oscars won’t be ‘so white’ this year, on the surface anyway. There have been a number of films that have rebuffed the fact that there are no minority films being made such as the Sundance hit, “Birth of a Nation” (2016), directed, written and starring multi-hyphenate Nate Brown – who has had issues that would seemingly distance himself from the white Oscar voters this year. There has also been the absolutely revelatory Jeff Nicholls “Loving” (2016) and of course this film, “Moonlight” (2016) from Barry Jenkins who had only directed one other film which no one had seen – although I suspect people will be searching YouTube for it now. This is a film that will challenge you on many levels and is very much an old fashioned independent art film that has social meaning very much identifiable in todays world.

“Moonlight” is a film that could be considered a characters piece and has a through line, but at he same time is made up of three distinctive chapters:


Shy and withdrawn child Chiron (Alex Hibbert), dubbed “Little” for his meek personality and size, is chased into an abandoned motel by a pack of bullies. He is later found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer, who takes Chiron to the house in which he lives with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to open up to them. The next morning, Juan delivers Chiron back to his controlling and emotionally abusive mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who grounds him for not returning home the previous day. Chiron and Juan continue spending more time together, the latter teaching Chiron how to swim while advising him to make his own path in life.


Now a teenager, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is frequently bullied, harassed and openly threatened by one of his peers, Terrel (Patrick Decile), though continuing to remain close to Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome). Paula has since become addicted to crack, solicits herself, and physically coerces Chiron to give her money given to him by Teresa, with whom he continues to spend nights over, despite Juan now being deceased.


Now a hardened and tougher adult, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes), going by the name “Black” (a new nickname that had been previously given by Kevin as a teenager) is a drug dealer living outside Atlanta. Having moved up since running drugs after leaving juvie, he now leads a similar life to the one Juan led, living in a large house and driving the same car. He has trouble sleeping and receives frequent calls from Paula, asking him to visit.

Once again I am not going to spoil this film – it really has to be experienced – and it looks fantastic on the big screen

It can be hard to believe that a film directed with such purity, rawness and realness could be Barry Jenkins second film, it is such a step up from his previous film one could even be forgiven for thinking this is a film made after a long career – but it is not. “Moonlight” evokes such feelings of joy, sadness, empathy and humor that it truly is a film that does not come along every day – and the way in which we have three separate actors playing the same person over three distinct time periods means that we are (and the relevant actor) not focused on the differences but on the commonalities and the links between each chapter. There is a cause and very real effect from one element of the story to another – and one that is made easily accessible by the director, writer, editors and actors – it is truly a monumental feat.

I had been waiting eagerly to view this film after I had heard some of the rumblings out of early reviews I can say that it is that special film that exceeds expectations unequivocally – there is no way you are able to walk out of this film without feeling something truly special has not been seen but witnessed – it does not trade on unearned emotion or fall down in relying on any archetype that it supposed to evoke feelings that haunt many of todays movies. In fact this story always moves the characters forward even when it is against their own personal safety or interests to do so – a prime example is Chiron’s mother, you just want to reach out and shake her to her senses.

As with any great film the performances and direction become one and sync in a way that even the casual movie goer can recongnise something special is happening and in this case the cast, writer and director are all working from the same page – this is apparent in every scene and every word uttered.

This film has a large cast, my own standouts and the three I see being the most revelatory are Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris who inhabit their roles even though they do not appear in the entirety of the film – but these are the ones that stand out. The obvious actors that hold our attention are the three that play Chiron (or Black or Little) – Trevante Rhodes, Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders – whilst each the central character are cast perfectly, it is not a huge leap to imagine these three people becoming each other as each highlights different aspects of that characters personality.

This is a film that does not just rely on its actors as Barry Jenkins has an excellent eye and a technique that proves he is a very good director and one to watch out for the future. My favorite part of the film is the first chapter, to me  you can identify what he is doing with the camera – except for the opening scene that is full of on the nose dialogue, the camera remains quite still and we see the characters enter and leave frame which indicates their role in this chapter. Jenkins knows what he wants and he executes perfectly in a way that compliments the screenplay and the actors.

This is an incredible film and at this point is my film of the year which is saying something, I believe it is superior to both “Loving” (2016) and “Fences” (2016) my other two films that I have rated highly. This is because “Moonlight” is contemporary and tells a story sorely lacking in films today – it is also more relevant in this post election period as it focuses on minorities, but also minorities within those same minorities. This film also asks questions about masculinity, love and what it means to hide one’s self every single day and the relief that comes from revealing the truth of that self.

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