Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.
But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)
Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners anot required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.
The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)
I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)
We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.
You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)
Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.
Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.