Moonlight (2016) 4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevonte Rhodes, Naomie Harris
Nominated for eight Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you—Juan
Moonlight chronicles the life of Shiron, a gay black kid that lives in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, as he struggles through poverty, bullies, and confusion about his sexuality to find his place in life. The film is split into three chapters, each one taking place at a critical point in his life. The first chapter, titled “Little” (Shiron’s nickname given to him by bullies), introduces us to the life that Shiron (Hibbert) lives: his mother, Paula (Harris) is a drug addict, he has confusing feelings about his best friend Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner), and kids call him a faggot all the time. A local drug dealer named Juan (an Oscar-worthy performance by Ali) rescues Shiron from some bullies and takes the little man under his wing. Shiron spends more and more time with Juan and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae), until he figures out that Juan is the one who sells his mom drugs.
The second chapter, titled “Shiron,” takes place during his high school years (now played in heartbreaking fashion by Sanders). His mother is becoming more and more addicted to drugs and resorting to stealing money from him; kids at school pick on him for being gay, except now it escalates toward violence. Shiron shares a sexual encounter with Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome), but the next day at school, the school bully dares Kevin to punch Shiron in the face. Not wanting to look stupid in front of the whole school, Kevin decks Shiron, and the rest of the bullies beat the snot out of him. Shiron, covered in cuts and bruises, arrives at school the next day and smashes a chair over the bully’s head. Shiron is arrested for assault and sent to jail.
The third chapter, titled “Black,” finds Shiron (Rhodes) in his late twenties, living in Atlanta as a drug dealer. He spent a good chunk of time in prison for the assault of his classmate and “got hard” when he got out; he’s jacked, he wears fronts, drives a muscle car—he is nothing like the skinny kid that got bullied as a kid. Out of the blue, Kevin (Andre Holland) calls him up, wanting to meet, which sets up an emotional and poignant ending.
Everything about Moonlight is beautiful. The dialogue, the cinematography, the score—everything combines to make a really gorgeous film about self-discovery, loneliness, and what it means to find out who you really are. However, what Moonlight is really about is what is not said between the characters. The crestfallen look on Juan’s face when Shiron asks him if he sells drugs. The panic in Paula’s eyes when she rummages through Shiron’s pockets looking for drug money. The apprehension and nervousness between Shiron and Kevin as they stand in Kevin’s kitchen. It’s these moments that truly drive the film, and that’s all down to the stellar performances of the cast.
The three actors who played Shiron throughout his life were incredible. From Alex Hibbert’s puppy-dog eyes to Ashton Sanders’s lanky swagger to Trevonte Rhodes’s tender tough guy, each actor brought his own strengths to the character. It would’ve been so easy to play Shiron the same way, but each version of the character was different; yet you could see 9-year-old Shiron in 20-something-year-old Shiron’s eyes. I’m flabbergasted as to how none of these guys got nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Moonlight does an incredible job of portraying the struggle of not only what it’s like being gay, but what it’s like being poor and black, especially through little snippets of dialogue that you almost miss. There’s one scene in particular, after Shiron is beaten up by the bullies, where he’s sitting down with a lawyer to discuss pressing charges. The lawyer calls him “boy;” Shiron angrily replies, “I ain’t no boy!” The lawyer says, “Well if you was a man…” and you watch Shiron’s face just dissolve into tears, because he’s spent his whole life so far not feeling like a man, between being bullied and feeling confused about being gay. It’s one of the film’s most poignant moments, and it shows us how tortured Shiron truly is.
This has been one of my favorite Oscar films so far. I’ll be pulling for it for Best Picture. I would be surprised if Barry Jenkins doesn’t win Best Director. Ali stands a really good chance of winning Best Supporting Actor, as does Harris for Best Supporting Actress. Even if it doesn’t win anything, Moonlight is one of those films that just sticks with you. You’ll remember it long after it’s over.
Fun Fact: When Juan teaches Shiron how to swim, Mahershala Ali is really teaching Alex R. Hibbert how to swim. When production started, Hibbert did not know how to swim.
Scene to watch: This monologue from Juan—about deciding who you are on your own—really underlines the message of the film.
Why you should watch it: It’s one of the not-to-be-missed movies of the year. It’s a true work of art.
Why you shouldn’t: Just go see it. It’s incredible.
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