By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
In 2008, I saw a movie at the Chicago International Film Festival called “Medicine for Melancholy,” which was an independent film by writer-director Barry Jenkins. It was a great film about a Black couple’s relationship that begins from a one-night stand. That film was described as “a study in class, race and Black identity, against the beautiful backdrop of San Francisco.”
Now eight years after this critically acclaimed romance, Jenkins is behind another film, “Moonlight,” which studies race and poverty and has been described as a “deeply felt cinematic swoon,” following one young man’s tumultuous coming of age in South Florida over the course of two decades. “Moonlight” has been a hit at many film festivals across the country, most recently at the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival.
“Moonlight” is an unforgettable drama at the intersection of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family, and love. It establishes Jenkins as a major American filmmaker for his ability to capture the pure feeling of longing and heartache playing out over the years.
Featuring a trio of gifted actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) inhabiting a single character named Chiron during three phases of his life, “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron’s existence in a tough Miami neighborhood.
As Chiron (who also goes by the names Little and Black during different phases of the film) grows from an uncertain and tentative boy into a bullied teenager grappling with his sexuality and finally into a grown man, Jenkins skillfully shows through three distinct chapters a life in full, revealing how the powerful moments in each of our lives coalesce to shape our identities and define our fates.
“Moonlight” also features a stunning supporting ensemble, including Naomie Harris (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) — playing with tough, impassioned grace a crack-addicted, single mother trying to raise her young son amid tempestuous personal struggles — and a trio of soulful performances from Janelle Monáe (making her feature film debut); André Holland (“Selma”); and Mahershala Ali (a recent Emmy nominee for “House of Cards” and one of the stars of Netflix’s hit Superhero series “Marvel’s Luke Cage”), embodying the indelible mentors who help love and nurture Chiron across the years.
“Moonlight” has been surrounded by an Oscar-worthy buzz, and it remains to be seen just what happens within the next couple of months. If it is nominated and does take home any prizes in this “Oscars So White” era, then it would mean much to many different communities, particularly the Black, gay community. “Moonlight is a masterpiece…a strong contender for best movie of the year,” writes Rolling Stone magazine.
The movie has also been lauded for his beauty and rarity, and moviegoer Kenneth Silber, Ph.D., had rave reviews. “’Moonlight” avoids stereotypes, both by making characters real, with whole people living full lives, and by upending our expectations of what the characters will turn out to do. For example, we expect Juan (Ali) to use Little as a runner in his business, but instead he cares for him and takes him to swim,” Dr. Silber said. “We expect the mother (Harris) to die of drugs or continue to be nasty, but instead she cleans up, and has a tear jerker scene with Black in which they both express how they feel about one another.”
Even the music used in the score is unexpected. “It avoids the music we would expect with movies that deal with gay life or the Hip-Hop environment,” Dr. Silber added. “There was very little violence of the kind we would expect – i.e., no gangster shootouts. Also, the violence that Chiron experiences could represent bullying in any school, anywhere and during any time period.”
Finally, Jenkins presents people with whom many can relate, as opposed to stereotypes that people are quick to yell out for or against.
The movie is taking the country by storm and is playing everywhere. It is one worth putting on your list of movies to see this year.
“Moonlight” is written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also serves as one of the executive producers along with Brad Pitt. It is distributed by A24 and Plan B Entertainment.