Moonlight is the little movie that could. About a year and a half ago, the only people talking about Moonlight were Black film geeks. I heard about it from Shadow and Act.
I haven’t seen Moonlight, but everyone that I’ve talked to who has seen it raves about it.
It’s the story of a young Black gay child and his journey to adulthood. From all the reviews, it is a piece of Black humanity rarely seen in film.
Moonlight has received EIGHT Oscar Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali
Best Supporting Actress: Naomie Harris
Best Director: Barry Jenkins
Best Original Score: Nicholas Britell
Best Writing-Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Best Cinematography: James Laxton
Best Film Editing: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
A Critic at Large October 24, 2016 Issue
“Moonlight” Undoes Our Expectations
By avoiding the overblown clichés so often used to represent black American life in film, Barry Jenkins has created something achingly alive.
By Hilton Als
Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’s brilliant, achingly alive new work about black queerness? Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace? Based on a story by the gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney—Jenkins himself is not gay—the film is virtuosic in part because of Jenkins’s eye and in part because of the tale it tells, which begins in nineteen-eighties Miami.
Four white Miami-Dade police officers have beaten a young black man to death and been acquitted of manslaughter, setting off riots in the city’s black enclaves—Liberty City, Overtown, and elsewhere. It’s hard for a man of color walking those sun-bleached streets not to watch his back or feel that his days are numbered. That’s how Juan (the beautiful Mahershala Ali) carries himself—defensively, warily. He’s a dope dealer, so there’s that, too. He may be a boss on the streets—his black do-rag is his crown—but he’s intelligent enough to know that he’s expendable, that real power doesn’t belong to men like him. Crack is spreading through the city like a fever. Stepping out of his car, Juan asks a cranky drug runner what’s up. (Jenkins and his ardent cinematographer, James Laxton, film the car as if it were a kind of enclosed throne.) Juan, his mouth fixed in a pout—sometimes he sucks on his tongue, as if it were a pacifier—doesn’t take his eyes off the street. He can’t afford to; this situation, any situation, could be changed in an instant by a gun or a knife.
In this world, which is framed by the violence to come—because it will come—Juan sees a skinny kid running, his backpack flapping behind him. He’s being pursued by a group of boys, and he ducks into a condemned building to escape. Juan follows, entering through a blasted-out window, a symbol, perhaps, of the ruin left by the riots. Inside, in a dark, silent space, the kid stares at Juan, and Juan stares at the kid. There’s a kind of mirroring going on. Maybe Juan is looking at his past while the boy looks up at a future he didn’t know he could have. It’s a disorienting scene, not so much because of what happens as because of what doesn’t happen. Throughout the movie, Jenkins avoids what I call Negro hyperbole—the overblown clichés that are so often used to represent black American life. For instance, Juan doesn’t take that runaway kid under his wing in order to pimp him out and turn him into a drug runner; instead, he brings him home to feed him, nourish him.
Moonlight’s writer Tarell Alvin McCraney: ‘the story needed to be out there’
As his film goes head to head with La La Land for Oscar glory, the playwright tells how growing up in the Miami projects inspired his view of America
There have been a few moments in his life, Tarell Alvin McCraney tells me, when he has felt like he’s hit the clock in a game of chess, and stopped the world turning.
The first of these moments occurred when he was six or seven years old and had been away for the weekend from his mother’s home in Liberty City, a low-rise housing project in north Miami. Home at the time was not only where his mother lived but also where her boyfriend, Blue, lived. McCraney was small for his age, and bullied at school for being different, for being silent, for not being into sports. He would be beaten, called “faggot” before he knew what that word meant. In the emotional absence of his own father, Blue was the first man in his life who really looked out for him, the first man he could look up to. Blue taught him to ride a bike, took him to the ocean, held him as he learned to swim, made him feel like he might have a place in the world after all. Blue was also a drug dealer, but in Liberty City in 1987 that wasn’t unusual.
When McCraney got home that weekend, though, he knew something was different. His mother, who had by then started on a downward path into crack cocaine addiction, was alone.
“Where’s Blue?” he recalls asking her, as if it were yesterday. “He’s gone,” his mother said.
“Blue’s been shot and killed.”
McCraney had a dozen other questions about the how, where and why, but as he was asking them, he recalls, he was all the time thinking something else. He was thinking: “This is something you have to remember. This is a very strong lesson for you. The good things in your life are not always. If you go away for the weekend, if you don’t pay proper attention, you will come back and they won’t be here.” As he says this now, he slaps his hand down lightly on the table between us and halts the imaginary chess clock.
We are sitting at a schoolyard bench in the Miami sun a few blocks and three decades away from that childhood memory. The bench is in the grounds of Liberty City’s African Heritage arts centre, a prominent neighbourhood landmark, built with all the civil rights optimism of 1975. As a boy, McCraney came here every day in the summer holidays, and often after school to avoid the harassment and beatings he got if he walked his usual route home through Liberty Square. He took classes here in dance, visual art, music, acting and writing. “You couldn’t sign up to one thing, you had to sign up to everything,” he says, with his easy laugh. These days he comes back to teach on some of those courses himself (he is also, in his more visible public life, newly installed chair of the playwriting programme at Yale University). It was here that he started writing about the chaos of his life in order to begin to make some dramatic sense of it. And it was here, in that sense, that he began his journey to Moonlight, the extraordinary autobiographical film that a couple of days before we meet has been deservedly nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture.