Last weekend, Moonlight made Oscar to history by becoming the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture, the first LGBT-themed themed film to win Best Picture and only the second film (behind Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to be directed by a black man and win Best Picture.
Sadly, Moonlight’s historic triumph was overlooked by a moment of farce in which La La Land was mistakenly awarded the statue, only for this to be rectified in the middle of the speeches. It would be a shame if this mix-up is how Moonlight is to be remembered, for it is a hugely deserved winner.
This is only Barry Jenkins’ second film as a director, but its an astonishingly confident one. Jenkins use of colour, choice of music and most of all his camera style – lots of long-held close-ups of people’s faces, long tracking shots and snappy editing – marks himout as a truly talented director.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, who we first meet as a scared, bullied child with a crack addict for a mother. He’s taken under the wing of Juan, a local drug dealer and his partner Theresa, who act as surrogate parents for Chiron. The scenes of bullying and abuse can be hard to watch at times, but they lead into the second part of the film, where Chiron has now become a teenager. He’s still being bullied, and also discovering his identity and sexuality. The actions that Chiron takes during this period make him the man he becomes in the third section, where he’s moved to Atlanta, but the ghosts of his past still haunt him.
Three separate actors play Chiron, and all are equally effective. Alex Hibbert is 9 year old Chiron, and his mannerisms and guarded personality are continued by Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron. By the time Trevante Rhodes appears as the adult Chiron, you’ve almost forgotten that these are 3 separate actors. It’s almost as if Jenkins had done something similar that Richard Linklater did for Boyhood and just spent 20 years filming the same person growing up.
The rest of the cast flesh out the story well – Mahershala Ali (so good in Netflix’s Luke Cage last year) is a well deserved Oscar winner as Chiron’s would-be father, while Janelle Monae is almost unrecognisable from the tuxedo clad figure who shuffled and danced across David Letterman’s stage a few years ago. Naomie Harris is also her usual brilliant self as Chiron’s mother, struggling with drug addiction.
Moonlight is a slow, thoughtful, almost ponderous film. Many people who go just to see what all the hype is about may leave disappointed. But it would be a mistake to write it off as purely a ‘black’ film or a ‘gay’ film. Although I had little in common with Chiron, it’s easy to identify with anyone who feels alone, or lacking any kind of emotional connection to someone. Although the film doesn’t end with any easy resolutions (rather like its fellow Oscar nominee Manchester By The Sea), you root for Chiron and want him to find happiness.
Moonlight is a film that will bounce around your head for days, even weeks, after watching it. It’s both startlingly intimate and wildly ambitious, sad and poignant yet hugely inspiring and uplifting. Oscar, you’ve chosen well this year.