Moonlight is the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) and feels like the beginning to the 2017 Oscar race (though some previous films could very well be contenders, as well). The film also stars the amazing Mahershala Ali, who stole virtually every scene he was in as Cottonmouth in Marvel/Netflix’s recent “Luke Cage” series. That’s pretty much all I knew going in, which is how I generally like it, when it’s possible.
Featuring an all-African-American cast and – as far as I know – crew, Moonlight tells the story of one boy, Chiron, as he matures into a man. Growing up, he doesn’t have much love or support in his life, until his path crosses that of Juan (Ali) and Juan’s wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe). But will their influence on Chiron last a lifetime or will others assert their influence in who Chiron turns out to be? And does Chiron, himself, have a say in the matter?
There is frankly so much going on in Moonlight that it’s hard to decide on where to begin. And when I say that, I don’t mean there’s too much happening regarding the story, which is simple, straightforward, and streamlined. I’m referring to the nuances and themes that permeate the film. Much of the narrative deals with the black experience, but from a fairly uncommon perspective. While nobody here is living the life of luxury, these characters also aren’t from the depths of the inner city (as some people often just assume). They have decent houses, decent cars, nice clothes, and what appear to be pretty good schools. But life’s biggest problems come from within and that’s the core of Moonlight.
From beginning to end, there is a dovetailing of the ideas of identity and that of nature versus nurture. Peter Parker’s teacher at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man said that she believes there is only one story: Who am I? I agree with that and Moonlight is the ultimate Who-Am-I? story. We all develop an identity as we age and it continues to shift until we die. But most of us have positive influences and support to help us along. Chiron only has one source of support, and nothing lasts forever. After that, he fights to not only accept himself but to find anyone else who will help him solidify who he wants to be and also accept him wholeheartedly for it. Surrounded by toxic masculinity at every turn, Chiron searches for clarity and direction in a world of chaos.
So, who are we as individuals? Do we decide for ourselves or are we completely formed by our environments and experiences? Well, both. But when that tug-of-war on the soul occurs too early in life with little to no guidance, things will go south and the current cultural and political climate will not typically be too understanding or forgiving.
The cast is outstanding on every level. Ali currently is one of the brightest lights in the industry. Hopefully, he’ll get some love at the Academy Awards for this role (I wouldn’t be upset at an Emmy nomination for his work in “Luke Cage” but if Vincent D’Onofrio didn’t get one for “Daredevil”, nobody in a Marvel show ever will). Regardless, Moonlight (along with some other potentials) should end the draught of minority Oscar nominations that has been the talk over the last couple of years. Three separate actors portray Chiron as he ages and all three (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) are magnificent. They’re each so natural and believable that the film often feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.
Moonlight is the film America needs at the time America needs it. It’s a story about inclusivity and acceptance. It’s a story that should remind us all that we’re more alike than we are different. And it’s a story that everyone should see and hear. Half of us should see it to reassure ourselves that there are others out there who understand the cultural problems we still face as a country and in that awareness there lies hope. Others should see it to attain a better understanding of a perspective that is not their own – to understand why we need to support each other and help provide respite for those in need. Each and every one of us can do good but only if we first acknowledge and recognize the bad.
And, with that, the Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down. I think it’s going to be a good year in that regard and I’m anxious to see what rises to the challenge. I think next weekend will bring another potential contender, but I’ll get to that, later. Bottom line, you owe it to yourself to open your mind and your heart and go see Moonlight. I can see the potential for copious interpretations of the film, based on each viewer’s own life experiences. Go and find out what yours will be.
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