On the face of it, the award-winning film Moonlight fits into that most stalwart of literary genres, the coming-of-age story. Whether it’s Great Expectations, The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, the form deals with the passage from childhood to adulthood, and all the snares and traps along the way. It has also chronicled the Black experience with I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings, Black Boy, and Native Son. Moonlight, though, turns this into a coming-to-peace story, overcoming prejudice and hate.
It’s a story in three pieces, with three different actors portraying the central character. The movie’s poster beautifully conveys this – take a close look at it. Highlighting the trilogy, the main character’s name changes with each segment. Little (Alex Hibbert) is a painfully quiet boy living in the Daly City area of Miami. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and Little is constantly bullied by neighborhood boys. He finds an unusual mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer in the area. In High School, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still faces the bullying. He finds one moment of peace and acceptance with another boy in his school, only to have it destroyed. As an adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes) has followed a path that has him acting out the role of his mentor, Juan. Then a late-night call offers the chance for restoration.
Director Barry Jenkins had done short films and one micro-budgeted feature before, but Moonlight received support from production companies A24 and Plan B to the tune of $5 Million. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s company, and Pitt serves as an executive producer. That’s a long shoestring, but still a shoestring budget these days. Jenkins also wrote the screenplay based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s a movie where silence speaks eloquently. Hibbert as Little has maybe one paragraph’s worth of dialogue during his section of the movie, but his body language speaks volumes.
Harris is the only actor who appears in all three sections. Most people know her as Moneypenny in Skyfall, though I remember her from 28 Days Later. Here she steps it up several notches to offer a searing portrait that’s been rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar after also receiving nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. It’s an extremely talented category this year with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams, but Harris is deserving of consideration. Mahershala Ali is also Oscar-nominated, and after his surprise win at the SAG awards he has momentum going for him. While physically imposing, he gives a restrained, even tender performance as Juan. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes combine for an indelible performance that blends perfectly. At the end of the film when Black takes center stage, you still feel Little and Chiron inside him, which makes it all the more emotionally impacting.
Along with the acting nominations, Jenkins has nominations for best director and adapted screenplay. The movie also received nods for cinematography, original score, editing, along with best picture of the year, for a total of 8. James Laxton’s cinematography is excellent, making you feel the heat of the sun-drenched days, though at night the world becomes rich and beautiful in the moonlight. Jenkins remembered when he was growing up in the Miami area how people’s skin glowed in the sun. Most movie makeup for Caucasian skin involves powder to dampen shine, but for Moonlight Jenkins used oil to capture the sheen he remembered.
The power of film is to put the audience into situations – and into skins – that are on the surface different from their own experiences. In doing so it makes those situations and people understandable and relatable. When it does its work right, those feelings persist so the understanding remains long after the lights in the theater come up. Moonlight accomplishes that with devastating power, but also in the end with hope.