Jenkins’ Accessible “Moonlight” Showcases Stellar Performances
If you haven’t seen Moonlight on the grounds of its tough subject matter, you may not be alone, but you certainly should reconsider. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature takes a Boyhood-esque trip straight to the heart of human pathos, spinning its tale of a man named Chiron through intimate close-ups that reflect the personal sting of his unfortunate circumstances. Moonlight has been — and will continue to be — hailed by the industry and viewers as “important” due to the sheer rarity of the subject in the medium of film: a gay Black man. But historically, “important” is a reductive and alienating label that pushes works of social significance into a dusty altar in the corner while safer, more thematically “accessible” movies such as Damien Chazelle’s (admittedly excellent) La La Land become box office hits. Audiences will avoid Moonlight because the experience would be “too sad,” but for all its tragedy, Jenkins’ tour de force is a much more satisfying film than Chazelle’s. It’s become clear over decades of box office figures that viewers don’t want to be challenged, and for that reason, Moonlight will remain “important” but unseen. This is the real tragedy, because Chiron’s story is far more than vital; it’s masterfully told, surprisingly entertaining, and achingly human. Push aside any preconceived notions of this being a “difficult” film; if you do, you’ll discover a wonderful cinematic experience.
Moonlight’s beauty begins with its structural simplicity. The film follows Chiron through three stages of his life in three chapters of equal length. Each examines the people who shaped the central character: his abusive and woefully sympathetic mother Paula; a man called Juan, who becomes Chiron’s surrogate father; and Kevin, a childhood friend. There are other characters woven throughout, but Moonlight most closely follows its central figure, placing its attention squarely on Chiron and the people he loves. Jenkins’ film has little room for periphery, opting for emotional resonance over narrative complexity. The story’s unexpected clarity makes it difficult to classify the movie as “arthouse,” a category it’s unfortunately been shoehorned into by an audience that doesn’t know what to do with it. Moonlight has one hell of a protagonist to draw, and it does so in a skillful, precise hand.
Over the course of the film, Chiron is played by three actors, each credited with different names to represent the distinctions: Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes). Though the three never actually met in the course of production nor saw each others’ performances before lending their own, their portrayals of Chiron are uncannily consistent, creating a congruous character arc with time-leaps that never feel jarring. But the actors deserve to be considered individually, as they each bring top-notch work to an already killer cast. Between Mahershala Ali’s unforgettable turn as Juan and Naomie Harris’ broken, riveting Paula, not to mention Andre Holland’s captivating performance as an adult Kevin, the cast is stacked with underrated performers doing the best work of their careers.
In a Hollywood that continually cites a perceived lack of actors of color to cast in its more A-list features, Moonlight showcases a dazzling ensemble of some of the industry’s most potent talent. Mahershala Ali, for his part, is on the brink of a bold new career; between Moonlight and Marvel’s Luke Cage, he has proven himself nothing short of captivating. And Rhodes, who’s tasked with the brunt of Chiron’s emotional baggage as the oldest onscreen version of the character, is a noteworthy breakout talent, capable of communicating the tender insecurity of a man stuck in the throes of childhood trauma despite his impressive physical presence. One leaves Moonlight with a sense of knowing the characters and, by extention, the actors, largely thanks to its gorgeous cinematography.
By fusing a distinctive cinematographic style with the film’s unique emotional range, Moonlight’s visuals stand out. Roving shots intentionally overwhelm the viewer, while solemn close-ups — of which there are many — rely on capable performances to communicate the script’s fundamental beauty. The film’s color palette is basic and dark, dealing in deep blues and stark whites; this steeps Chiron’s world in a surreal, dreamy aesthetic that pairs well with the temporal fuzziness of the storytelling. With a score consisting of classically inspired, melancholy soundscapes, the audiovisual experience suffuses even the everyday act of cooking a meal with deep feeling. Despite its small scale, Moonlight is best seen in a theater, where one can feel the swells of its orchestral tracks and see the script’s weight drawn in vivid detail across the characters’ faces as they fill the screen.
Films like Moonlight should be seen before they’re praised. The empty mantle of “significance” placed upon a movie whose artistry eludes simple description is reductive in the deepest sense, perpetuating the decades-long tradition of tokenizing Black voices that has plagued Hollywood and its massive viewership. With Moonlight, Jenkins proves what many Americans apparently need to be reminded of in order for the point to stick: that accessible cinema not only shouldn’t but isn’t relegated to the straight, white experience or a storytelling style that’s familiar to the privileged palate. He’s crafted a film that speaks to everyone through the soft voice of a man called Chiron, a hero whose endearing awkwardness is far more relatable than the broad strokes that paint a blockbuster flick’s protagonist.
There is no formula for accessibility in entertainment. A film’s ability to engage the audience is not enhanced by a factor of “fun,” nor is it determined by the gravitational pull of the industry’s biggest stars. Good storytelling goes further than its medium, and just so, Moonlight jumps off the screen, begging to be experienced.