2017 Oscar for Best Picture
2017 Oscar for Best Screenplay
2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Barry Jenkins
— What does faggot mean?
— It’s a word that makes gay people feel bad.
— Am I a faggot?
— No, you aren’t. You might be gay, but you’re not a faggot.
— How do I know?
— You’ll know.
Moonlight is about feeling “trapped” in a life you didn’t choose. It’s about not knowing what love is. It’s about loneliness, bullying, and despair. It’s about knowing who you are. It’s about bonding. About building trust and being betrayed. About seeing people fall. Surviving in the projects and dealing the cards you have been dealt.
It’s about a cathartic moment of revelation on a beach in Miami at an age when there are only questions and no answers, when trust is a dangerous project, and the stakes are sky high.
It’s also about the visceral importance of “others” who are not the ones we expect but who help to shape a life through their actions at a crucial time. And it’s about the moment they realize the searing impact they have had on the development of that life.
It is the most touching and relevant film you will see this decade.
Take a black kid in a black neighbourhood infested by drugs and thugs in the 80s. He gets bullied because the boys say he’s “soft.” Liberty Square in Miami is no neighbourhood to be soft in. He doesn’t like sports much, doesn’t gel with the other boys, doesn’t have friends. But there’s one boy who doesn’t mind talking to him. Kevin.
Then there’s the streetwise drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), complete with do-rag and hip ride, coming into the hood to check on the strung out dealers he’s got working the block. That’s his life. But when he finds a scared 10-year old kid known as Little hiding from bullies in an empty boarded-up house, Juan takes the kid under his wing and protects him, forging a father-figure type bond with him. He and girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) are his guardian angels as Chiron grows up in the projects with his crack addicted mother (the riveting Naomie Harris). Juan’s compassion and genuine investment puts a seed of trust into Chiron’s soul. The seed that bonds and enables growth.
But Kevin, the friend from grade school, is the one who has the most personal impact on Chiron; Kevin makes the flower bloom in Chiron’s heart. He is the one who opens the door to Chiron’s personal secret, but he is also the one who slams it shut with a bitter and brutal betrayal that will determine the choices Chiron makes thereafter. But Kevin doesn’t grasp how deeply he has impacted Chiron until he calls him 10 years later to apologize. That’s when he finally understands.
The strength of the film lies not only in the development of consciousness in its characters, but also in the seamless portrayal of those characters through different actors in three different stages of their lives. And if you ask me, all of the actors playing the three Chirons and the three Kevins are impeccably synched and deserve Oscars.
This is a magnanimous feat. Director Barry Jenkins did not allow the actors to watch each other to define their roles; he directed them to feel their character so deeply that they conveyed the essence and vulnerabilities of Chiron and Kevin through their eyes and non-verbal expression. Jenkins’ aim was to have them portray the emotions that, like an iceberg, are invisible beneath the surface. The result is two main characters that the audience can recognize through the delivery of six different actors!
Absolute hats off also to casting director Yesi Ramirez for finding non-actors locally in Miami for 10-year old Chiron and Kevin (Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner), and the delicate Ashton Sanders and confident Jharrel Jerome as Chiron and Kevin in their late teens.
The adult Chiron is played by Trevante Rhodes, who takes on the role from the soft, hurt, and insecure inside of a “hard” street personae, and whose look and demeanor emulate rapper Fifty Cent to a T, complete with gold “fronts”.
Kevin is played by André Holland, who exudes an understated, empathy-driven and sensual aura that would appeal to just about anyone, and which gives his character all the credibility of an intimate flame that has never gone out. The visible continuity between these six actors portraying two characters across almost three decades is truly remarkable.
I have to mention Naomie Harris who offers a vivid, raw performance — which is said to have been shot in only three days — as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother who is aware of her condition and at the same time pathetically out of control. An Oscar here please.
Moonlight is in fact Oscar worthy from casting to scenario, to direction, to art direction and to acting. It is shot with poetic imagery and sensitivity to the emotional anchor points of the story line that, for example, bring the viewer back to the beach and of the ocean as quiet reminders of intensity, but also of the consistency of time and the healing power of love.
Beautiful and powerful, Moonlight embraces humanity from beginning to end in all its gritty and sublime reality. As playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney explained in an interview on PBS in 2016: “Authenticity is key. When we come to the table truthfully, we can see that there is room for more voices, more than we’ve ever had previously.”
Oh, and did I mention this is an all-black cast? I didn’t. Because it is only relevant to shed light on what is not visible.