It’s been eight years since Barry Jenkins’ directional debut Medicine for Melancholy was released, but in all those years many people still did not know his name. The same cannot be said now. After his astonishing independent drama Moonlight made history on a number of grounds, his is a name that will never be forgotten.
With a modest budget of $1.5 million dollars, featuring an all-black cast and a gay protagonist, Moonlight broke many trends when it won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. The circumstances surrounding this historic win may have been the main subject of conversation following the ceremony and while the fiasco will always be remembered, what will live on is the legacy of Barry Jenkins’ magnificent masterpiece that will hopefully open to door for many films of its kind to follow.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight – co-written by McCraney and Jenkins – follows the life of Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes) from his childhood spent with his drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) in the crime-riddled projects of Miami to his early adulthood.
We are first introduced not to lead Chiron but to Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drug-dealer who chances upon a young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) after he has taken refuge in an abandoned flat in a bid to escape a group of bullies. This accidental encounter leads to Juan taking Chiron (who goes by the nickname Little at this stage in his life) under his wing. But instead of teaching him his trade he becomes the much-needed father figure and male mentor Little craves.
He teaches Little to swim, a simple rite of passage he’d never get from his mother, in a moving sequence in which Nicholas Britell’s orchestral score plays in the background and the camera bobs in and out of the water immersing us in the experience as though we are filming it ourselves. It is Juan who delivers the pivotal line “at some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” that establishes the tone of the film which is more concerned with its characters personal development than creating large-scale drama.
As we enter the second half Ashton Sanders takes the reigns as the teenage Chiron (now going by his birth name). Struggling with his sexual identity and continually trapped in a broken home with his wayward mother, Sanders beautifully captures Chiron’s awkwardness and emotional turmoil as he endures severe bullyIng from his peers. We are also introduced to a 16-year-old Kevin played by Jharrel Jerome – a stand-out in a film full of memorable performances. It is through Chiron’s friendship with Kevin that his sexual feelings flourish and a romantic encounter between the two on the same beach where he was taught to swim becomes the definitive moment in his young life.
Like with all cinematic masterpieces it is not just one aspect of Moonlight that excels but many. From the powerful score to James Laxton’s stunning cinematography that elevates the endearing beauty of the film to another level and Barry Jenkins’ masterful direction which ensures you’re aware of every camera movement and technique on display. But best of all is the tender and strikingly realist script that’s supported by the mesmerising performances from Moonlight’s exceedingly talented cast. From Mahershala Ali’s sensitive portrayal of Juan to Naomie Harris’ note-perfect performance as Paula that makes her both despicable and sympathetic, the sheer humanity of the characters is the film’s greatest triumph.
If you want to see the true brilliance of Moonlight’s script and performances come to life you need only look at the scenes between an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) – who now goes by the nickname Black – and Kevin (André Holland). Expressing a wealth of deep emotions through subtle glances and masking their true feelings behind casual small talk, the chemistry that oozes between the pair is the single greatest moment in Barry Jenkins’ extraordinarily beautiful film that continues to make you feel moved long after you’ve left the cinema.