“Moonlight” defies cultural expectations and cliches to become one of the year’s best

Independent film continues to shine in an otherwise disappointing year for movies

Miles Andersen, Video Editor
Originally published February 6, 2017

“Moonlight” is the sophomore effort of director Barry Jenkins. It tells the story of Chiron (played at three different points in his life by Alex R. Hibbard, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, respectively) a boy growing up in the Miami drug scene.

In the first act, a nine-year-old Chiron (referred to by his classmates as “Little”) struggles with the reality of his sexual identity, as well as the roles assigned to him because of his race and gender. The following two acts continue to weave these threads, placing Chiron at age 16 and eventually as an adult dealing with similar conflicts.

At nearly every turn, “Moonlight” defies cliches. Juan, a drug-dealing father-figure of Chiron’s (played with masterful subtlety and charm by Mahershala Ali), is portrayed as a loving man with an unexpectedly wise nature to him. A particularly powerful scene in the first act depicts a conversation between Chiron and Juan about Chiron’s sexuality; audiences, because of the way all-too-many African-American drug dealers are portrayed, will be surprised at the wisdom and truthfulness Juan shows when comforting Chiron.

Chiron is raised in a small apartment by his crack-addicted mother Paula, (played by the James Bond franchise’s Naomie Harris) who commands every scene she’s in with anger, power and a sort of quiet sadness previously unseen in the actress’s career. She is a stand-out, and deserves recognition come awards-season.

In the end, the film wouldn’t be as truly fulfilling as it is without the strong performances of Hibbard, Sanders and Rhodes as Chiron. Each actor is extremely restrained in their performance, as if Chiron is right on the verge of screaming out his turmoil, but instead keeps it buried deep down. By act III, silence in conversation is used to such perfection that audiences will find themselves at the edge of their seats, waiting in anticipation for the slightest glimpse into the character’s psyche. This audience engagement can be chalked-up to the wonderfully-realized screenplay and character depictions, also championed by director Barry Jenkins.

The film’s technical aspects are near-flawless as well—particularly in the realms of cinematography and score. “Moonlight” looks tender, much like its lead character; it exudes melancholy in nearly every shot through it’s use of color and shallow focus.

The film includes some of the classic hip-hop music one might find in many other movies taking place in the drug scene of a major city, but stylistically-classical film score mostly takes center-stage here. One stand-out scene, involving Juan teaching a young Chiron how to swim, is made truly memorable by its gripping and intense string arrangements. Later in this scene, Juan tells Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” This sums up Chiron’s journey to a tee.

“Moonlight” is a film for today’s America. In an election season drenched in outdated phrases like “inner-city”, it says, with confidence and truth, that the black population of America cannot and should not be defined by confining phrases such as this. These characters thwart the cliches that audience members are so often exposed to, and sink deep into the watcher’s memory long after the film touches black.

Independent film is the current hub for quality filmmaking, and this is one more example of such. If you want to support an independent film this holiday season, “Moonlight” without-a-doubt deserves that support.