Moonlight : A Film Review


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 circumstances more 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.


Performances

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.


Colour

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.


Conclusion ####4

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.

John Graham

18 February 2017

Belfast

On at Queens Film Theatre from 17 February to 02 March 2017.

Selma : A Film Review

Selma 2014 US/UK Cert. 12a.
Director. Ava DuVernay. Cast: David Oyelowo, (Martin Luther King Jr.), Carmen Ejogo, (Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson, (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Andre Holland, (Andrew Young), Omar J. Dorsey, (James Orange), Tessa Thompson, (Diane Nash) Colman Domingo, (Ralph Abernathy), Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, (George Wallace), John Lavelle, (Roy Reed), Jeremy Strong, Dylan Baker, (J. Edgar Hoover), Oprah Winfrey, (Annie Lee Cooper).

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Selma in the 1960’s
When the Television hit the living rooms of modern life in the shapes of mass produced plastic boxes, carrying life through the lens of the Networks and state Media outlets which quickly had become the news digest medium of moving image broadcasting.

The war in Vietnam covered a long period but when in 1960 US President Eisenhower pledged American assistance to the South Vietnamese after decades of sporadic involvement which went back to the early days of the century and further the Television was there there to bring pictures.

Ava DuVernay the Director of Selma clearly is aware of the media presence, the new media, in tackling Selma and the story of the war fought inside America in respect of Racism. The division of white black and other races was a complete unresolved and to a large extent still remains an unresolved mammoth in the Politics of the United States of America as well as every continent on the planet.

Lyndon Blaine Johnson was only a small part of it.
As far as Martin Luther King Jr. was concerned he was the principle obstacle.
So what linkage has the Film with LBJ and what he was at?
There were 5 U.S. Presidents during its involvement in the Vietnam War. They were:
1. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
He wanted the breakup of Vietnam to stop the influence of Communism in South East Asia.
2. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
He decided to use Machinery sending masses of aid. Three weeks before he was assassinated he had organised a coup against Diem who he was also ‘aiding’.
3. Lyndon Johnson (1963 –1969)
He became embroiled in 1964 vastly upgrading the inner war by the Operation Rolling Thunder. US Combat troops had hit the ground in March 1965. He instituted the draft in the face of anti-war protests across campuses and Wider America.
In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred and its resolution gave Johnson more powers to wage the war in Vietnam. He was the President who ordered the bombing campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder and sent the first combat troops to South Vietnam in March 1965 after an attack of Viet Cong on U.S air base in Pleiku. The draft was instituted soon after that and caused many anti-war protests nationwide especially inside campuses.
4. Richard Nixon (1969 -1974)
He decided Vietnam was not enough and decided to go into Loas and Cambodia. His Christmas bombing of 1972 an especially personal act of retribution on North Vietnam
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So this is the background to the film.
The Proximity of War
To wage war you need troops and so for Texas anti-communist Lyndon Blaine Johnson it must have been obvious that as he had a war of continuous making; it was an inherited war against Communism, sometimes fought with the US also.
The arms industry was a widescoping and labour intensive work and profit wielding operation, giving with it the supremacy of power sought against the Eastern Bloc of Communism post-war that Russia had become and the quite Maoist China had grown into against its agrarian broadly egalitarian principles, the modern America had within it the black community disenfranchised and treated as second class citizens.
Producing Product
Brad Pitt in Producing role and Ava Du Vernay the Director must have sat down together and looked about at a script or treatment to sort out into Selma. The casting is odd and the Criminal Americans, George Wallace, LB Johnson with principle British Actors complete with wavering Texas, Alabama accents and frankly dumbed down ‘psychotic minds and blood thick contempt’ are cop outs by Americans not wishing to put that nest of vipers on their own doorstep.
It makes you wonder do they have what it takes to tell a complete story.
The counterbalance is also that perversely the Mr and Mrs King performances of the good characters is splendidly accurately and deeply prescribing the emotion and humanity both these people undoubtedly possessed. Oprah is not sole a exception in delivering a stunning and extraordinary memorable acting part. There is seldom an American who does not inhabit nor convince you this reality is now in the room.
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Civil Rights
To tell the story of Martin Luther King is a grand project. Quite literally he alone turned the United States of America to the mirror and look into itself.

The hatred , the division, the sectarian, the discriminatory, the exploitation, the inequality the cultural gulf was theirs to own in the USA.
David and Carmen
David Oyeloyo is introduced to us as Martin Luther King in the Brad Pitt peacock way, in a plush hotel room with the peacock feather flock wallpaper alongside the doting wife Coretta played beautifully and smartly by Carmen Ejogo. The Nobel Peace Prize awaits and The scene is our introduction as the Ascot tie is unfurled and retired as with customary and honest reflection, David Oyeloyo conveys the differences existing throughout America as they both have come to this citadel of honorable notoriety.

A very Scandinavian backdrop of pastel mistreatment sand geometric clashes of subdued angst cover the walls behind him on acres of canvas as he receives the acclaim and he has the opportunity to deliver his soliloquy.

The stage is set and we are next to see the memorable, very, very, accomplished performance of the central embodiment of the issue in the form of Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, a nurse sought her right to vote in Selma Courthouse. It is a scene of oppression and dignity plainly conceived and effectively delivering for its writer Paul Webb his and our grasp of where we shall be going.

It is the straight and narrow path which it has been the vision of Martin Luther King to symbolism, focus and harness around the odd gospel doctrinarians that stood the Black communities in good faith through the venal hardships of white slavery and which manifested all over the world in various non-believing forms.

The he actors are well up to this task as most and probably all a have a large part of the memory, the history, the feelings of hurt manifested and manifesting in every core of their existence. This is the story as noted above of holding up mirrors and seeing the reflection inside and out. Of seeing through the impressive though tangibly flawed concept of film another reminder of ourselves flawed and unable to breakdown fears.
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Black Power for a War?
Tom Wilkinson as Lydon Blaine Johnson plays the role of the US President (the one the film ignores who saw the need for troops and Black troops suiting his warring ambitions against Commmunism) as a vexed, lagubrious control freak leader manipulating all about him in an ill fitting suit and displaying cockamayne bullshit language as a means of acting plain stupid when he utilised it as another tool in the armoury. David Oyeloyo is never outplayed and neither is given the reign to overbalanced the other in direction. Quite literally this combat of words and gestural conflict are brilliantly handled by Ava DuVernay.

The same is with almost every passage through the film.

The delivery of the Selma town as being atypical Alabama and spokes town for the cities. The Boston’s, Philidelphias, the Chicagos of America as MLK distilled into a real life narrative to focus, focus and bring explicitly and implicitly onto the new TV screens of America.
Ferguson another Ulster name.
DuVernay composes the bridge scenes when the central plank of the film which is the march to set out from Selma to the town of Montgomery (I wonder now about the white settlers from Ulster? erstwhile fundamentalists?) which has as it’s first physical obstacle the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This happened in 1965. It’s was a scene of passive activism meeting with violence unleashed under the authority of Alabama’s Wallace and with the probable blessing of US President Johnson.
Neither of who wanted any power to reach the hands of ordinary people bearing in mind the Black majority in States of the South.

Such was their land theft and exploitation of white and black workers the whole edifice of control was part of an even broader picture of modern empire.

The scenes on the bridge are pivotal and while large parts of America are adjusting to difference, that it was there to stay in many immigrants from Europe’s eyes, it is was entirely different for the Native American and those whose own history was the relatively young slave nations and continued exploitation throughout America.

DuVernay delivers vividly the issue through pieces of dialogue between for example, Malcolm X played Nigel Thatch and Coretta with Carmen Ejogo understanding only too well how personally high the stakes are set against them both.

There is also the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose players have the raw anger of youth and played out by the respective actors superbly.

On March 7th, “Bloody Sunday,” is the centrality.

Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton,is brutalised on the march, likewise Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash.
Bloody Sunday and the Courts
In the Courthouse Martin Sheen as presiding Judge has a small role and this must have been another tilt at Hollywood’s finest remaining in the room under the invasion of outsider acting.

I noticed and it is not a spoiler, that as well as being a continuity key, DuVernay has a black and white girl on the central steps of the Court staircase conversing leisurely as the case is awaited, adjudicated and discharged.

It is a bit of sisterhood over the male violence which is at the fearful root of the hatred.

Conclusion. ####4

This is a very pivotal film for America to be making as it will be soon bro into the habit of commemorating and making sense of these times after and amid conflicts fought since elsewhere.

The film is a great accomplishment regardless of any caveats, Americans and Foreigners bring to it. It is smoothly achieved without being overwrought. Without rancour it repeats sometimes in the frame of the old footage of TV. Black and white footage without the sight of blood that it had excess of and it is for people like Oprah to get this story told over and over in countless ways. The witness of the United States of America needs is of campus, State museums right in the heartlands telling each part of the story from wherever it reveals the truth of the divisions. The inter gyration of communities need united in principles and seem through the mirror of History.

Despite misgivings on casting and they are in my mind intentionally non-committal moves of intent, the lack of addressing the Politics in an analytical observant way by critics and commentators, it delivers a many vectored and visually impressive and solid story of Historical narrative handheld with excellence by writer, director and the vast bulk of the cast.

It is a wonderous achievement – the achievement of Martin Luther King that is brought In no small part alive and it should not be the only vehicle to explore and inhibit more adventurous filmmaking in looking into the mirror of America. US Cinema should be up for it having so long relied on false narrative, escapism, fantasy for its Cinematic canon.

Less fantasy please America, more of this opinion shaping medium.

The USA needs this continued analysis and the connections run back in many directions, slavery, imperialism, religious division, to the dislodged from the little Island of Ireland for one. Further as well to the more worrying presently pressing, fore bearers of Jewish diaspora from Europe whose religion is like Middle East politics entwined in the industrialisation of War and all have completely undermined their futures in failures to contend with content of the Bible. The commandment not to kill a fundamental evidence of blind faith.

John Graham

4 February 2015

Go see it at QFT from
Friday 6th February to Thursday 16th February 2015

“Glory,” a song by Common and John Legend ends the film.