By Greg Hill-Turner
It is a tragedy that Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ soulful, absorbing study of black queer identity on the streets of Miami, will likely be best remembered as “the film the Oscars got wrong”. In an outrageous mishap already passed into living legend, Hollywood icons Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (also famous for a timely insight into the state of the union with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde) were handed the wrong envelope, leading the swooningly romantic musical La La Land to be announced as Best Picture. A seemingly endless length of time followed before someone had the guts to admit there had been a dreadful, vaguely hilarious mistake. It was Moonlight, a ground-breaking $1.5 million indie lucky to ever receive a theatrical release, that had won the top prize.
This bizarre turn of events has, somewhat unsurprisingly, overshadowed the titanic achievement such a win represents. The first film directed by a black filmmaker to earn Oscars’ top prize, Moonlight captures with extraordinary clarity and grace the wealth of experience packed into a life few in this audience will ever know. It is a film in constant search of the finer details, the apparently insignificant moments that can last a lifetime. It’s no accident that the film’s finale refers directly back to the protagonist’s sexual awakening 10 years prior. In Jenkins’ strictly linear coming-of-age narrative, it is fleeting expressions of love and acceptance which inform who we grow up to become. You couldn’t ask for a more singular, vibrantly impactful film, nor a more deserving winner.
Moonlight plays like a sweeping, deeply felt symphony, pitched to a captivating tempo before cascading into a roaringly affecting crescendo. The film takes place over three distinct points in the life of Chiron, a young black kid growing up in contemporary Miami, as he attempts to reconcile his burgeoning sexuality with the masculine posturing of his peers. The first segment is largely dominated by an Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali as Juan, an empathetic drug dealer caught between caring for this lost soul and profiting off his mother’s crack addiction. It’s likely a star-making turn for the consistently reliable character actor, having previously made his name on Netflix’s House of Cards and superhero drama Luke Cage. Juan’s absence hangs over the following two acts as Chiron slowly assuages further from his true self, captured through extraordinary performances by newcomers Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
The most staggering transformation occurs between the middle and final chapters, with Chiron adopting the distinctive look, demeanour and occupation of Juan; the only legitimate male role model he’s ever known. Rhodes is afforded the film’s most challenging role, conveying with astonishing humanity the fragile persona Chiron has erected around himself, and just how quickly it can come crashing down.
Moonlight is a movie that revels in its specificity. Loosely based on a semi-biographical play from Tarell McCraney, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jenkins, it is a heart-melting, visually stunning evocation of a time, place and group too often ignored by mainstream cinema. An administrative error may have soiled its defining moment in the popular zeitgeist, but this extraordinary masterwork will live on long after the headlines have run.