Moonlight (2016)

Dir. Barry Jenkins. Starring Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders

This movie thrums. Moonlight has an after-school special feel to it for long stretches, but in each of its three acts finds a way to manage the least interesting of those excesses. Little (Hibbert) is accidentally rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae) while he’s hiding for boys who want to beat him up for being gay; in a poetic sequence, Juan teaches him how to swim. The middle act, the best of the three, is somehow the most laden with school assembly issues. Chiron (Sanders) has a deeply intimate sexual encounter, his first, on the beach with a longtime friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome); a bully named Terrel (Patrick Decile) manipulates Kevin into beating Chiron up; Chiron obliterates Terrel with a chair during school the following day. Black (Trevante Rhodes), now living in Atlanta, gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland), still living in Miami, who basically gives him an open invitation to come visit. Black shows up, Kevin makes him dinner at the restaurant; there’s an uneasiness in the conversation the two of them have, neither one able to tenderize the situation. At Kevin’s apartment later on, in a display of serious vulnerability, Black tells Kevin that he is still the only man he’s ever been with in any way.

Juan is so gentle with Little while the boy’s learning to swim. First he holds him while he’s floating, teaches him the way to move his arms (“more athletic”), asks him if he’s ready to give it a try by himself. It’s not hard to imagine that this is the longest extended stretch of personal attention and tenderness Little has gotten from an adult in many years, maybe ever. Moonlight is occasionally so low-key, as quiet and unwilling to open its mouth as its protagonist, that one can be lulled by its patience. It’s clear that Chiron is walking into school with a new swagger in his step. (I’m always a little leery of child and teen actors, but the kids of Moonlight are in many ways better than the adult actors. I was particularly taken with Sanders, who is already lean, subtle performer.) Watching the chair explode on Terrel’s back is cathartic and breathtaking. In that last act, it’s a joy to watch Holland in particular. Kevin in the first two pieces of the movie is complicated but skin-deep. Holland fleshes out that character as a person with history and with a knowledge of his future. Towards the end of the movie, he tells Black – wearing the nickname that Kevin gave him years and years ago – that he’s come to understand himself. “I wasn’t shit,” he says. “I wasn’t never myself.” What a difficult line to say well, but Holland does not turn it into “I coulda been a contender.” Kevin has become self-aware, even if it took him a very long while and some rocky stops to unravel that thread. In many ways that line is as stunning as Black’s admission a few moments later; the last shot of the two of them, heads together and sitting close together, requires both of them to be astonishingly open. The thrumming in that final act is built on that slow broil; we know why Black has come to Miami, but he makes no sign that he’ll reveal it to Kevin even when his old friend gives him openings to say something.

Holland, if we’re honest, should probably have Ali’s nominations/awards for this movie. Ali – and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s druggie mom, Paula – are playing old boring types. Juan is a drug dealer with a heart of gold. When Paula confronts him one night not far from where one of Juan’s dealers is selling, they have a fight over young Chiron. Are you gonna raise him? Are you? Are you going to stop selling me drugs so I can raise him? It’s tired, and it bounces off the audience like a tennis ball off the racket. (The fact that Black is a drug dealer – complete with a plot-necessary, character-neutral scene to introduce the idea to us – lacks oomph. It takes a minute for that third segment of the film to lift off, and having to c) Moonlight is effective with few words, or with measured pauses between sentences. This kind of shout-over-each-other moment doesn’t fit the movie’s M.O. at all. That Moonlight chooses to indulge in a perfectly necessary but also deeply tired debate, one which pulls the onus away from its main character, is disappointing in a movie that does so many new things with its characters. Juan must be perfectly aware of what drugs have done to local neighborhoods, and to many children as well; why is he suddenly so moved by this one kid? Paula is a thankless role, one which doesn’t suit Harris. Her AAVE is flat out bad, lacking the realism that Sanders or Rhodes bring to the language. In a scene in the beginning of the third act, where Paula tells Black that he may not love her but she loves him is just as tired. His mother is a key element of his life, as anyone’s mother is, and I can appreciate why she’s necessary to the plot. The execution just isn’t better than what you’d get in some splashy drama with a two-season shelf life on cable. Moonlight too often feels like it’s two movies. One of them is an instant classic about an increasingly lonely man whose mostly repressed homosexuality has colored his choices. The other is a paper-thin melodrama which chooses to portray exhausted topics without giving them any Gatorade first.

The color of this movie likewise alternates between brilliant and frustrating. The warm tones of Miami are present in orange, rust, coral, vermilion, tangelo, persimmon. Coolness – in people, in the water – is struck through with midnight blue. Separately, they are excellent. Do the Right Thing and Cries and Whispers, two of my favorite exercises in red, amp up the ideas of heat and blood, respectively, through use of that color. Moonlight
turns orange, usually such a sunny, happy color, into a powerful statement of Chiron’s isolation. He is so often flooded with orange, especially when he’s alone or distant.

As for blue, Moonlight knows what it’s doing, no questions asked. The sadness which we traditionally associate with blue, as well as the gravity it carries (the sky is blue, the sea is blue, etc.), come out with such force when it’s given a chance to dominate a frame.

The name of the movie comes from something Juan heard back when he was living in Cuba, from an old Cuban woman. In the moonlight, she said, black boys look blue. They certainly don’t look happy in these scenes; at night it’s easier, some way or another, to hide. Moonlight is not a realist movie, and the colors, larger than life, are the biggest help this movie has in rejecting a straightforward telling of Chiron’s story.

This is a problem I had with American Honey as well; the blue-orange combination, by which I mean blowing up a shot with the two colors contrasting on top of them, is irrevocably Michael Bay. There’s not a good reason for this shot to play the two of them off each other so boldly except to say “This looks cool.”

I’m less annoyed by blue-orange when it’s in the details of a shot, reflecting the people in some way, rather than composing the entire feel of the frame. I’m fond of seeing Kevin in blue, surrounded by the orangey, believable colors of his apartment.

I also like this use of blue and orange as foreground and background colors; orange for the juice and blue for the couch, both of which have presumably been jacked up by a colorist.

What both of those shots have in common is plenty of white to temper the cloying character of the blue and orange; it balances the entire palette, which is fitting. On the whole, Moonlight is a little more balance away from a brilliant movie.

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