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Every so often, a movie comes along that changes my perceptions of cinema and the world. These flicks let us see directly into the characters, their lives, what they like/dislike and how they act in or react to the events of the narrative. For their run-time, they deliver everything cinema should offer on a regular basis. Moonlight is one of those delights. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play, Moonlight proves every frame can be essential to the overall effect.
Sadly, Moonlight is the movie now synonymous with Academy Awards stuff-ups. This $1.5 million independent feature went up against a musical, docudramas and war epics during this year’s Oscars ceremony. The lead-up was spectacular, with the film gaining industry recognition for its depiction of the gay-black experience, life in lower-class America, and familial conflict. However, thanks to one Price-Waterhouse Coopers’ representative’s folly, this and La La Land are tied together eternally.
This article is not saying La La Land is not important, exciting, interesting etc. Indeed, the movie is notable for being the exact opposite of moonlight. Its reach-for-the-stars vibe balances out a melancholic ending with scintillating effect. Moonlight is nothing like this. From the opening sequences, this narrative smacks of realism and heartache. It’s in these opening moments where director Barry Jenkins places his feelings on his sleeve (for the audience to take in). If you’re squeamish, head out of the theatre and head straight towards the nearest blockbuster (you may feel safer there).
We meet drug dealer/kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali) dealing drugs in Miami’s Liberty City. The opening shot is propulsive. Jenkins never talks down to anyone or simplifies anything for the audience. Juan’s body language and tone proves he rules the roost. The neighbourhood responds to Juan’s presence with glee (in the saddest way possible). Yes, he’s a drug dealer. Aware of his presence, the area loves him because of what he supplies. He is seen as the businessman, the top dog and enviable leading man type all rolled in one.
Is after this initial introduction, we feel his presence throughout the movie. Juan finds the protagonist of this story, Chiron “Little”, hiding from bullies in an abandoned block of flats/crackhouse. Juan first comes off as the hero, a strong man saving a young boy from bullies and the dangerous environment around them. Juan overcomes his stoicism to do what he knows is right. By the five to ten minute mark, one of Moonlight‘s supporting characters has shown a depth and range rarely seen in mainstream lead characters.
Juan wants, in this instance, to make a valuable first impression. He knows Chiron will run away or ignore him if the truth came out. These glimpses add to Jenkins’ and co. arresting vision. Even a sparsely utilised supporting character ties intricately into everything else. It is in this moment we meet his significant other, Teresa (Janelle Monae), before Chiron is taken back to his crack-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). To become a role model, or at the very least more likeable person, Juan sets Chiron up with a mini-family. The Juan, Teresa and Chiron embody the father-mother-and-child vision of American life. The characters hold onto their time together – envisioning shiny, new lives and aiming to overcome or even step away from their current status’.
Throughout their time together, Jenkins develops a beaming, ultra-positive father-son dynamic between Juan and Chiron. Juan, despite his life choices (profession), seeks to keep Chiron from the ugly truth and divert him towards a better future. Juan helps Chiron with the ‘basics’ (learning to swim etc.) to increase his intelligence and abilities. Our father figure, thinking of his own regrets, contemplates his role in Chiron’s life. A wordless Chiron listens intently to Juan’s story. Juan recalls of an old lady talking to him, saying black boys turned blue while running around in the moonlight.
It is here Juan gives Chiron the ultimate, coming-of-age ultimatum – “At some point you’ve gotta decide for yourself what you want to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you”. Juan passes on whatever knowledge of the world he has onto Chiron. Although giving only slivers of information, Juan pushes Chiron to find a new path through the ghetto and adulthood. The mystical-magical-negro type – depicted in many films as providing younger, better looking white characters with inspiration – is now a lower-middle class man filled with regret and sadness on the inside, with only a tough exterior guarding people from knowing the truth.
Juan is the ultimate supporting character – on-screen for short periods and continually making an impact. His frustrations and weaknesses rise to the surface whenever Paula comes into the mix. In their first meeting, Juan explains Chiron’s disappearance overnight. Paula, seemingly threatened by Juan’s fatherly affection to Chiron, rejects Juan’s assistance. Overcompensating for Chiron’s lack of father figures, Paula acts with full-throttled anger. Instead of listening to or thanking Juan, she stares him down and snaps at him until he leaves. The lioness asserts her dominance, to Chiron’s detriment. Her dominance and choices make for an unsettling near future for Chiron.
“At some point you’ve gotta decide for yourself what you want to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you,” Juan (Mahershala Ali) – Moonlight, 2009.
Juan and Paula’s next encounter shows Ali and Harris to be two of Hollywood’s most esteemed character-actors. Juan confronts Paula after seeing her smoking crack with one of his regular customers. Channelling his deep-seeded fatherly love, Juan stands up for Chiron. His interrogation, in another film, could potentially change Paula’s point of view and make for change. More sugary fare might lead Paula down more redemptive path and, possibly, into Juan’s arms. Here, however, Paula once again establishes her raw, untethered emotion.
She berates Juan for coming into their lives, convinced she is protecting her son’s best interests. Paula, thanks to her issues, is a threatening presence for everyone in her path. Paula shares her true feelings of Chiron, convinced his homosexuality has led to isolation from peer groups at school. She says Chiron, against the norm,is cast aside and punished by the majority. In such a tough area, his skin does not help him blend in. The bullies look beyond anything concerning race; seeing only an outsider and threat to their way of existence.
Juan is overwhelmed by Paula and her attitude to parenthood. He, after discovering Chiron’s mother’s lack of care or consideration, is convinced the truth may in fact scare the boy into going down the right path. Juan, Teresa and Chiron sit together at the table, aping the appearance of the family unit sharing quality time together. Juan attempts to understand Chiron’s plight, discussing Chiron’s sexual orientation as acceptable. Juan here represents the understanding, tolerant parent (like Teresa and less like Paula). Chiron, however, focuses only on Juan’s profession and way of life. Chiron, disappointed in Juan for selling drugs to Paula, leaves the home. The pair never interact again, with Juan hanging his head and crying in his last scene.
Ali and Jenkins deliver a powerful, subdued supporting character. Though starring in only the first third, Ali conveys an entire emotional and psychological arc with just a handful of expressions and scenes. Unlike many supporting actor/actress winners, Ali chooses subtle, quiet performance over loud, brash eccentricities. Instead of drawing eyes towards him, the actor allows us to soak up his role and the frame around him simultaneously.
Juan encapsulates the movie’s undying affection for Chiron. Ali and Jenkins subvert the stereotypical poor, negligent dad type. Whereas Chiron’s biological father appears to be long gone, Juan attempts to get closer. Realising he could be something greater, Juan sees an opportunity and tries to take it. He turns from drug dealer to father figure, with the audience sympathising and empathising with him throughout his and Chiron’s time together.