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With: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland
Written by: Barry Jenkins
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout
Running Time: 111
Date: 10/27/2016

Moonlight (2016)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Black and Blue

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It has been eight years since Barry Jenkins' lovely feature debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008), which the Florida-born filmmaker shot while living in San Francisco; it was one of those releases so small that even "under the radar" was too big to describe it. Now he has relocated to Los Angeles, and his second feature film, Moonlight, is getting heavy buzz. It helps that times have changed. Discussions of homosexuality and race have been moved to the forefront, with the recent legalization of gay marriage, and Donald Trump's devil-may-care racism in the 2016 election. In fact, given the recent fizzle of Nate Parker's simplistic The Birth of a Nation, Jenkins's film has an outside chance to fill the void at this year's Oscars.

Where Medicine for Melancholy was occasionally preachy, could not hide its anger and frustration about the way things are, Moonlight is quieter. It allows audiences to step inside the experience. It tells its story in three chapters in the life of a young man. In boyhood, our main character Chiron is known as "Little" (Alex Hibbert), shy and skinny and routinely taunted and bullied by other kids at school. He has one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to encourage him. ("I knew you wasn't soft," he says.) One day, bullies chase him and he escapes into a broken-down, abandoned building, now used as a hideaway for drug users. He's found there by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is indeed a drug dealer, but who resonates with a kind of effortless, commanding calm. Juan takes Little to the home of his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), where he is given refuge.

It turns out that Little's own mother (Naomie Harris) is a volatile drug addict, and he doesn't like to go home to her. He ends up spending quality time with Juan, bonding, doing the things a father and son ought to do, like going for a burger or going for a swim (Little's birth father is not in the picture at all). One of the movie's more complex themes arises when Juan realizes that Little's mother is one of his customers.

A few years later, in the second chapter, "Chiron," he has grown to high school age (played by Ashton Sanders), still shy and skinny, still picked on by bullies. Juan is gone, but Teresa still provides a haven when he needs one. His friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has taken to boasting about his conquests with girls and keeps an uneasy truce with the bullies that occasionally requires him to do unsavory things. When Chiron goes out wandering around the city — Moonlight was filmed in Miami — both to avoid his mother and the bullies, he winds up near Kevin's secret pot-smoking spot. The two teens share a smoke, and then share a kiss.

In the third segment, called "Black," after Kevin's lifelong nickname for Chiron, our main character has grown to young manhood (played by Trevante Rhodes). He has worked out like crazy and now sports huge muscles, a gold grill for his teeth, and a do-rag very much like Juan's was. He is also a drug dealer; in one scene, he calmly intimidates one of his underlings, making him move out of "his spot" on the couch, and frightening him into thinking his cash count is short. Black's phone rings, and it's Kevin (André Holland). The conversation is apologetic and awkward, but Black still decides to drive to see him at the restaurant he now runs. Kevin cooks him a meal — Black gently removes his gold grills before eating — but conversation does not flow, and it's difficult for Black to say what he really wants to say.

Chiron's sexual preference is never quite stated out loud. Earlier, the bullies tease Chiron about being "gay" well before he even shows any kind of sexual preference. Later, we know that Chiron has avoided any kind of intimate contact with anyone of either sex (he wakes up with with nocturnal discharges, apparently able to deny his sexuality everywhere but in his dreams). So, what does it mean to be black and gay? Does it come from Chiron's environment, the things he lacked growing up? Jenkins does not blame the tough neighborhood, nor the lack of a father figure, nor the poor mother figure, nor the drug dealers, nor anything else. Rather, he simply suggests that, for a boy in this situation, being gay is only inconvenient and dangerous. Desire and love are not even a remote possibility in this world. It's as if Chiron collects all the parts of life that he knows about within his limited experience and designs his own existence so that passion is not even involved. It's a small, sad tragedy.

Jenkins's setups and scenes are remarkably perceptive, and quietly textured, with glorious exteriors as well as cluttered interiors, to reflect the characters' lives. The filmmaker allows us great time and space to ponder. These are black lives, and gay lives, and they matter not because they're simple symbols or slogans, but because they are, indeed, lives. Chiron breathes and eats and sleeps and feels. There is time in this movie for those things. It's a movie of deep feelings as well as deep themes. Of course, white appreciation of Moonlight could possibly evoke cries of white guilt, just as many other critical and award favorites have done lately, but I think the movie cares less about white guilt than it does human understanding and compassion, across the board. And in that, it's a beautiful success.

Note: after a couple of viewings, this review has been upgraded to four stars. Liongate's 2017 Blu-ray release comes less than 48 hours after the movie's win for Best Picture (as well as two other Oscars), and though it's great timing, I wonder if the studio should have waited a bit. For one thing, the blurb on the front of the box boasts "six Golden Globe nominations." ("Oscar Winner: Best Picture" just looks better.) Also, the three featurettes, though longer than usual, are standard studio-produced talking-head affairs. Perhaps if they had known how special this movie is, they could have waited and produced a more prestigious release. (Maybe it will get a Criterion release in the future?) At least Barry Jenkins's warm, upbeat commentary track is here. There are also trailers. The video and audio quality are lovely, truly capturing the poetic work that went into this movie.

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