Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Moonlight - a film review

Barry Jenkins (front) with the three actors who play
Chiron at three different stages of life, in Moonlight
Every once in a rare while a movie comes along that blows you away.  You sit, when it’s over, and watch the credits, milking it for the last bit of energy.  Whether you feel like bursting into tears or just feel good all over, you know you’ve seen a film you will remember.  Such was the case with Moonlight, a story in three acts about a boy at about ten, then seventeen, then twenty-seven, give or take, who struggles to survive life with a drug-addicted single mother in a Miami inner city ghetto.

The last time I remember being this taken with a movie was with Brokeback Mountain.  If you are gay and your first experience of sexual self-discovery was sabotaged by a religious upbringing, you will have shared the thrill I experienced seeing a love story told to a universal audience to widespread appreciation of the film craft and understanding of the challenges gay people face.  Moonlight shares this with Brokeback Mountain.  But what writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins have given us is two-for-one.  It’s not only the story of a gay kid whose childhood is an endless string of bullying events; it’s also what Te-Nihisi Coates has called the “best take on black masculinity ever.”    Three-for-one, if you add in growing up poor.  Four-for-one for having a mother who will throw you under the bus to get high.  And whom you have to love anyway because you know there’s nobody who has ever loved you more or ever will.

I think The Wire, that crime drama television series set and produced in and around Baltimore, Maryland, should be required viewing for all American high schools and recommended for anyone who wants to understand the failure of American democracy on multiple levels.  And I think Moonlight should be required viewing for anybody who has ever turned their back on the problem of racism in America or suggested that there are people who are simply no good and deserve to be locked up forever.  What Jenkins and the cast of Moonlight have managed to do is portray a close-up look at addicts and thugs before they get that way, while they are becoming that way, and after they come through the storm and find themselves still standing.  A lot the worse for wear, but still standing.

Perhaps I’ve given too much away, but I don’t think this will take away from your experience with the film.  The story is told, probably because it is autobiographical for both Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins, with such empathy and it conveys such a sense of authenticity that you are very likely to want to see it more than once.

When I do see it again, I imagine I will find more and more to take in.  Sophie Gilbert has a review article in The Atlantic in which she writes of the symbolic power of water in the film.  There are moments like the one when a bully reveals his vulnerability by a quick glance over his shoulder. And when Little, as the protagonist is known in his young years, asks his benefactor if he’s the man who supplies his mother with drugs.  Scenes which speak volumes about human complexity.  And scenes which make you appreciate that for all of Jenkins' talent as a writer, Jenkins the director also knows that some things are best conveyed visually. 

The story brings home the truth of the saying, “to know all is to forgive all.”  Or, if that’s asking too much of you, at least you can understand the universal appeal of the Christian command to forgive those that wrong you, even when you are surrounded by evidence this command is readily preached but rarely taken seriously.

You’ll find my enthusiasm matched by a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, by six Golden Globe Nominations, by ten Critics’ Choice Awards. The New York Times claims it’s the best movie of 2016, the Boston Globe calls it a cultural watershed, and the praise goes on and on.

When you’re done, you may want to do as I did and make the rounds of interviews with Barry Jenkins and the cast.  They go on and on on YouTube.  Skip Charlie Rose, who asks so many wrong questions.  But have a look at the one done by:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyN5ptzcYws

Moonlight is why we go to the movies.