I can’t really think of the words to begin a review for Moonlight. That’s not some hyperbolic fevered attempt to get you to go see it, more of an admission of defeat on my part when it comes to describing such a film. Moonlight, the film that went into the Best Picture race with a somewhat infamous underdog quality (being an LGBTQ+ and black focused film will do that, especially in today’s political climate and in light of last year’s #Oscarssowhite fiasco) and left with the Oscar and a somehow even more infamous reputation (it was totally not Warren Beatty’s fault by the way).
It’s hard to talk about the film and remove it from the wider political context that it was released in to, but I personally feel that both sides of the film (the film itself and the context) should be analysed as being part of the whole text anyway. Luckily all aspects of the film work and I’m pleased to report that Moonlight serves as both an excellent edition to the modern canon that serves to bolster the arguments that Hollywood needs more people of colour being represented on screen and behind the camera AND it’s a beautiful and haunting film that stands firmly on its own even in a vacuum of any and all discussion.
Director Barry Jenkins never lets up in his almost voyeuristic stalking of young man Chiron, his birth name but not his only name, throughout his life, capturing three distinct developments of it almost as if it were a play. Despite having a more arthouse-style approach to narrative, ebbing and flowing and acting almost as an experience rather than a conventional plot, this three act structure brings important anchorage to a style of filmmaking that could very easily float off course and into indulgence or even worse, boredom.
To give an example of both those two elements marrying together perfectly, the first scene doesn’t even introduce us to our protagonist at all, instead opening with drug dealer Juan (played to Oscar-winning caliber by Mahershala Ali) going about his day. Whilst not immediately getting into the film’s direct subject matter, instead we’re introduced to the world of Liberty City, Miami, in the impoverished suburbs that are the setting for the majority of the film. Going by the story that Moonlight drew Barry Jenkins in by reminding him much of his own cultural background, it’s not surprising that this establishing sequence is the first thing we see in the film.
Much of our protagonist Chiron’s life is influenced by outside parties and circumstance, so its fitting that this is what see first. The camera follows Juan out of his fancy sports car and follows him over to the corner, where one his guys pushes drugs. The sequence features a constantly moving camera that revolves around the whole scene yet never makes you feel ill or disoriented. Yet it does leave you somewhat breathless, almost claustrophobic in how intimately close you get with those two characters.
And that’s one of the main aspects of this film that sets it aside from the others of this Oscar pack. This film exudes tenderness and intimacy in a way that evokes Jenkins’ self-admitted influences of Wong Kar-wai and Lynne Ramsay. While being similar in its arthouse proclivities to Jackie, it feels far warmer, less staccato and genuinely more human. The mixture of image and music in Moonlight is almost always directed towards the idea of closeness among people. The camera lingers on bodies, delighting in on-screen physical contact between two humans.
Moonlight has many political messages, but there’s one that’s far more abstract, and that’s the importance of bonding between humans, the importance of love and warmth and the importance of making amends to spoiled relationships and presupposed prejudices and bigotry.