Moonlight Oscar time and the winner is! This time they eventually got it right.
Director. Barry Jenkins. Cast. Alex Hibbert as Little; Ashton Sanders as Chiron; Trevante Rhodes as Black; Mahershala Ali as Juan; Janelle Monáe as Teresa; Naomie Harris as Paula; André Holland as Kevin; Jharrel Jerome as 16-year-old Kevin; Jaden Piner as 9-year-old Kevin.
Story in 3 parts
Barry Jenkins has taken a history of a boy to man and set it in three chapters. There is a different name given to the same person taking the journey. From Little to Chiron to Black we do find out what becomes of him in these chapters as these are the phases in life which mould and control the advance of the boy. He is so small all call him Little in the beginning. His choices are few. His drug addict mother is a loose cannon and he is a wild child who makes his own way to find food and survive on Miami’s streets. Liberty Square and Liberty City project were key.
“It was the first time someone had come to their community and wanted to represent it onscreen, and since Barry Jenkins had grown up in that area, there was this sense of pride and this desire to support him. You felt this love from the community that I’ve never felt in any other location, anywhere in the world, and it was so strange that it happened in a place where people were expecting the complete opposite.” Local reaction. Police escorts filming were also needed.
It is another film without the father figure to lead the boy through the wilderness. He is of the type of child whose wits need to be sharp and he is streetwise switched on kid. The survivors instinct remains as a child and it builds barriers other circumstancesmore civilised will have an immunity to.
A substitute or replacement father figure is presented in the form of a low life dealer Juan aka Blue. Chiron also is given an alternative mother in the form of Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa. She provides a place of refugee when home is off limits. There is an identikit friend, Kevin, who acts as a foil to the apparent destitution Chiron finds himself in, as a kind of compass point. In dealing with all around him he becomes aware of his sense of self and sexuality and masculinity in particular. Kevin the friend is the daytime school crutch and compass. Life becomes a shade perplexing when his mother enters his alternative world also due to her addiction. If you want to see this as a love story then it would serve that purpose well as a means to carry it through to the end. It clearly has a central focus of love. Absent or emerging. All those experiences of the exhilaration, hurt and beauty of loves roll call are heartfelt and dealt with, with precision and clarity, for an boy caught in a mess not of his making. The pleasure, if you can call it that, is the directors ability to draw us into the imperfections and choices made. Gracefully tenderly and astutely levity of kind deeds and sometimes redemptive acts occur.
Filmic sense of place
There is a claustrophobia about the ‘hood’ the techniclour neighbourhood which if it were not for the separateness, the sense of entrapment, the shut off segregation by class context, its so discordantiy uplifting. It is a failure of integration and also generated by the mood music of America – the sure and undealt endemic racism – which has credal, national boundaries. Into the first frames we see the neighbourhood and relaxed men talking on the street, and Juan played superbly by Mahershala Ali crosses the street to meet a pair talking and they then imply upfront talk about the deal on drugs going array. Juan settles things and shows his dominance an function as the top man on this neighbourhood. He identifies with the role with a tall cool gait. The cinematographer, director annoyingly follow and old circular walk around of these three before moving on down the street where a parked car and its occupants have drawn his attention. This start is easy but limiting. It presents no contrast or order or place. Fortunately that is a minor blip on starting a story which involves Chiron and his mother – the Oscar nominated Naomie Harris. Her living conditions are less well kept and are a backstreet compound of chalets in blocks and most with boarded, or grilled up windows. The transition central to the story as coming of age is for some plain others get the subtlety of brotherhood and Little looking up to Kevin who is ‘gifted’ in pleasure potency. Little borders on loving Kevin and they share a blunt and Chiron gets to know a bit more of how he works. Seldom clear it shows the muddle he is in. The lack of sexual insight and experience continues and the only therapy is his imposed identity persona as a crutch which ends up in the third act well expanded. Barry Jenkins makes the point not to be clear to an audience and leave them thinking despite the numerous comments that it is a gay based movie. That’s not what he intends it or wants it to be. More evidently it is a mixture of social and human frailties and strengths in circumstances which they are trapped by.
For Chiron there are 3 actors each giving a very connecting depiction of their adopted character. The innocence and uncomfortable, questioning, uncertain and with a ready smart intellect clearly challenged Alex Hibbert as Little is first to capture your interest and enquiry. His co actors in principally, Mahershala Ali as Juan; Janelle Monáe as Teresa; Naomie Harris as Paula; all give him latitude. As they react and relate they summon belief in these people and the grim unequal situation they are in. It is pure unpoliticised but a sense of real America without the dragging in of hot notes of comparison. It is all done through the characters themselves gathering in the audiences belief in them. There is a humanity and faith underlying but again no Chaplain or holy moment to underpin an anxiety or piece of hateful racism. All is done on its own terms. The central ‘Chiron’ has another age of reason to play with, Ashton Sanders as Chiron does it again with his portray of the sexual emergence of the self put to the test and masculinity including bullying from a constant Terrel school classmate excentuate the hurt and confusion while Juan rfeatures less here but he and Teresa provide more help as things get worse.
Barry Jenkins in interview points out – : I think in the story, one of the strongest moments is when Juan unpacks the word [faggot]. I think for a kid to see that scene whether they identify as LGBTQ or not is important. There’s this great quote about the film that says, “Juan unpacks the word but he doesn’t unpack Little with it.” I think that distinction is very important. I think because of the journey this character goes on in the film; you watch, and you see how this guy gets further away from who he is. I think when you see the power we have to affect people for ill; I would hope that kids would humanize and identify with that character.
In a further element on period which is 1987 in feel he returns to his own upbringing – No work. [to the Liberty Project buildings] I don’t like to talk about time stamps; 1987 or 1989 or things like that. But that place feels to me, largely the same as it did when I grew up. It’s part of the permanence of whatever is the spiritual and cultural gumbo that’s in the air. To be honest, when I read the script that’s what it was. I thought, “This feels like my childhood, but it also feels like now.” It felt like a very contemporary story or how stories are rooted in our past. So we didn’t have to do a lot to augment Liberty City to make it feel like the place where we grew up. It literally is the place where we grew up, and it hasn’t changed a ton. People who have watched the film talk about the imagery, but I didn’t do much. The walls are painted that color, and they have been since I was a kid. From http://www.chocolategirlinthecity.com/ An interesting blog for a great variety of reasons.
Finally the significance of colour. In the original play which itself has provided audiences more insight its title says it all – In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It’s difficult to narrow down why I wrote it in a way that feels generous to the process of it. It was really self-serving. There was no real representation of myself to see, and to purge ideas on and to look at for models of. I was trying to figure out my manhood, my childhood, and my personhood. I was the son of a crack-addict who had just died from AIDS-related complications, but at the same time, I was on the precipice of a life-changing moment. The writers view.
I was struck by the visul imprint based solely on the title. From the appearance of the Cornflour Blue of Juan’s Buick to rooms, to looking down on chairs outside, the colour turns up with frequently as a subtle glow of the saturated good life taunts the screen characters. The saturation on Niaomi Harris in her home is significant and redolent of type. As for Oscar worth it’s not up there for her in my view despite her throwing herself into the acting and working with a ‘type’ scripted in her part lamely. She took a bit of persuasion as she did not want to play a crack addicted woman and it shows the script let her own also. The rest get a better deal. So if inference and facial angst is enough for an Oscar it wouldn’t be the first time. Talking of which this has coming of age similarities to Boyhood. Equally enriched and out of type, mainly.
Being on the surface a coming of age film it differentiates itself by putting up the conditions and everyday mostly drug dominated complexities of restricted life. The restricted containment and lack of connective integration seen in New York and very large conurbations, where the sheer scale allows for little else other than integration of a more natural kind, is expressed here because perhaps paradoxically the people have the space. America is so huge the enclaves happen as a easy out. Not many look at it this way but Planning, Counties, States have grown up and been shaped this way over years perhaps excentuated by the 50’s Political driven life. This film has broken through the barriers and provides an astute though at times trope laden story which crosses boundaries in inhabiting the characters space and giving huge performances. It has certain limitations but it is undoubtedly a very unique and great film for these times and predicates more and carefully created work ahead. There is also a very good musical score and sound tapestry. Very mature and spot on.
18 February 2017
On at Queens Film Theatre from 17 February to 02 March 2017.