Moonlight (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Moonlight (2016)

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Little. Chiron. Black. Three names for the same boy. Isolated because of the hate he endures from his sexuality, the boy grows up into a man with pain that can’t be forgotten.  Barry Jenkins writes and directs Moonlight, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and stars Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, and Naomie Harris.

Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film, Moonlight, stands tall with Michael Mann’s work in recognizing the vitality and pain behind a Miami bustling with diverse life.  Cities like Miami serve as the scapegoat for conservative pundits bemoaning the loss of American culture, and have undue weight forced on them from a liberal perspective.  After all, the votes in Miami-Dade County were to tip Florida in Hillary Clinton’s favor.  Maybe if liberals considered what life there is like and worked to improve it, instead of assuming a side, maybe things would have been different.

So why did I finish Moonlight’s fresh perspective feeling no different than I did before?  The elements in play have proved an interesting cocktail in the past.  The sensuous lighting courtesy of cinematographer James Laxton recalls another gay coming of age movie, Dee Rees’ 2011 masterpiece PariahMahershala Ali, who was excellent in the conflicted masculinity of Cottonmouth in Luke Cage, creates a complicated performance of rarely seen black sensitivity while anchoring himself in the old to young tentative sexual guidance of Moonlight’s protagonist.   These are elements I adore, yet the complete package left me cold.

Jenkins spares no detail showing the physical toll society inflicts on Chiron.

My indifference is, in part, due to Moonlight’s structure.  The screenplay, also written by Jenkins, adapts the play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraneyMoonlight follows by staging the bulk of the interactions between characters in simple person to person terms, and divvying up the protagonist’s journey into three chapters.  What may have been intimate on stage comes across as disconnected and a bit confounding onscreen.  We’re asked to assume so much of the protagonist’s development in between the three chapters that no sense of identity forms.

This may be a problem with the play as well, since the three stages of the protagonist’s development center around what other people call him instead of what he thinks or feels of himself.  As a child he is Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) when a teenager, and Black (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult.  There is little else to each step of the protagonist’s character other than he is a black gay man.  What other details emerge, such as his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) as the sort of black crack-addicted woman Reaganites in the ‘80s fretted about, dilute his character instead of shining a new light on him.

Trafficking in clichés is one way to make a conceptual point, but the general concept of Moonlight is unsettlingly conservative.  This starts with the crack mom cliché, but continues most notably in the third act when the protagonist assumes the mantle of Black.  He plays loud rap from his speakers, adopts a more hypermasculine stance, coats his teeth in metal – basically becoming all the things conservative-leaning folks have conjured up when belittling or fearing black men.  The late film revelation designed to reverse our perception of this image, that acting out the cliché has not made Black happy, falls flat.  We’ve spent so long with the protagonist as a cypher, with his off-screen development into Black and other transition from Little to Chiron that he comes across as a pitiable collection of ideas instead of a pained human.

When Moonlight comes alive it undergoes a curious conversion in color.  There are roughly two moments, once in Little’s story and another in Chiron’s, where the cypher of the protagonist lets loose.  Both are shot with more light and less color, the better to witness black bodies in action, one in baptism and the other in violent frustration.  They’re also the two moments I remember most as the protagonist’s inertia paired with the return to lush colored lighting diluted the effect of the latter because of the former.  One exception, and it’s a hell of a moment, is when Paula vents her frustrations on Little with the impact of her screams framed in pink and purple surrounded by a sickly green.  She is muted, but her diseased take on motherhood remains.

The screen bursts with Black's smile, I just wish I knew more about the man behind it.

The opening segment with Little features the strongest storytelling thanks to the magnetic anchor that is Ali’s performance against Harris’ repulsive work as Paula.  The former nurtures Little by keeping the truth of his role in the latter’s pain away from Little.  While I have reservations about Paula as written, the push/pull dynamic in these formative years from Little’s identity create unique spaces for witnessing abuse and sensitivity.  The two other sections feel like stories I’ve seen before of high school bullying and manly facades crumbling in the sight of love.

A third of a great film, and my disappointment with the rest, still earns a stronger recommendation than other Best Picture winners.  Moonlight is a tremendous achievement and should be heralded for Ali’s performance along with Laxton’s cinematography.  But the disappointment was real.  I hope you’re able to get more out of Moonlight than I was.

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Moonlight (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Barry Jenkins.
Starring Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, and Naomie Harris.

Posted by Andrew

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