The first words you hear in Moonlight are “Every nigger is a star.” It’s the title line from the song by Boris Gardiner, and it speaks to Moonlight’s twin preoccupations: race and film itself. Moonlight is a dramatic epic that follows a black man named Chiron through almost three decades of his life, growing up in Miami and later settling in Atlanta. Of course, like any life, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and the lives in Moonlight are complicated by skin color, poverty, drugs, crime and sexuality.
Moonlight just premiered on Amazon Prime’s streaming service, and many viewers might not know much more about the film beyond its controversial winning of the 2016 Best Picture Oscar after the biggest blunder in the history of the award. While Moonlight’s closest competitor, La La Land, grossed $443.3 million worldwide, Moonlight earned the comparatively small $65 million – accounting for about a seventh of La La Land’s audience. But, Moonlight also won Oscars for best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali) and writing (adapted screenplay) for director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Of course, awards are never a sure sign of actual greatness, but Moonlight is one of the best American films of the 21st century.
Cinematographer James Laxton was also nominated for an Oscar, and his self-conscious lensing is like an unspoken character in the film. In Moonlight, a sundrenched Miami is dotted and draped in chilly white sheets, white shirts, white rugs, white birds in a painting on a wall – I think there’s some splash of white in nearly every frame of the film. In addition to the whites, its primary palette is made up of blues against chocolate brown skin along with bursts of blood red – it’s all shot with bold colors in high contrast. Moonlight is a film about color in every sense, and even on a laptop screen it’s terribly beautiful to look at.
I say terribly because the blues aren’t confined to the colors in the frames of this film. Nearly every moment of this movie is infused with a palpable woundedness, like this entire story is the aftermath of some tragedy or many: as a boy Chiron has no father at home; his mother is struggling to support them but is ultimately neglectful, addicted to crack and unable to provide a safe home; kids play soccer with a homemade ball as there are no resources for the smallest luxuries. All the lives in Moonlight seem to be marked by traumas and the aftermath of those traumas – poverty, violence and fear.
I mention that the film’s cinematography is self-conscious because despite its subjects, Moonlight isn’t pictured with gritty realism. The movie is highly stylized, and the light and colors give a heightened sensibility to a story with mythic resonances: Chiron is also the name of the Centaur from Greek mythology who is a wise, knowledgeable healer unlike the rest of his savage species. Moonlight’s Chiron is quiet and gentle, and even after he transforms in the film’s third act it’s clear that the sweet, sensitive child is still buried deep inside the wounded, brooding man.
The film is full of quiet moments where big things happen amidst nearly no action and very few words: Chiron finds out his father figure is the man who sells his mother drugs; Chiron has his first romantic encounter with a male friend on a beach at night; Chiron is viciously attacked by bullies after school. The practically flawless acting and dialog in these scenes keep the film from dipping into sentimentality or melodrama, and the truest of the true scenes in this film finds Chiron retaliating against his bully. American movies almost never have the courage to embrace real violence as it might actually happen in real lives, but with one swing of a wooden chair Moonlight provides us with one of the most authentic moments in the whole history of violence in film.
Chiron is arrested after the assault and the next time we see him he’s an ex-convict with a prison-yard physique, a small drug operation of his own, and a revolver hidden beneath the front seat of his car. The film’s third act is an unpredictable, poised, heartrending chapter about lives undone and dreams unrealized. And the film’s final image brings a devastating end to the story while simultaneously shouting-out Francois Trouffaut’s classic wayward youth flick, The 400 Blows. Trouffaut’s film gave us a timeless story that spotlighted iconic actors, and it’s regularly mentioned as a classic film about growing up. Add Moonlight to that same list.
Moonlight is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.