Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: "Moonlight" Embraces the Complex Beauty of Black Lives in Exciting New Ways

Scene from Moonlight
Director Barry Jenkins has produced something magnificent with his latest film Moonlight. In an era where cutting edge cinema is often spoken about in a technical sense, he has found a way to explore it in a spiritual sense. With a story that spans three key periods of a black man's life, he has found a new and exciting way to explore the black experience through an art house gaze. With limited exception, the story of Chiron is one that is personal and captures a beauty rarely seen in American cinema. The film's title refers to the way that black skin shines in the moonlight. To say the least, few have captured it as beautifully and artfully as Jenkins has, leading to the question as to why that is. It may only be a small piece of the bigger puzzle, but it is evidence that black lives can be beautiful, even in dire circumstances.

The story of Chiron focuses on three key moments of his life. In his youth, he is seen finding a surrogate father figure who teaches him to be true to himself. As he ages, he has a homosexual awakening that leads to some conflicting life experiences with bullies. Then there's the oldest and most reserved Chiron. Having experienced hatred at a young age, he is bullied into not being true to himself. He is a prototypical man whose life is an enigma; uninteresting beyond the curvature of his muscles. The supporting player is Kevin, who is there almost as a guide for him throughout those years, reflecting a certain happiness that leads to a captivating ending free of the cliche celluloid closet victim. It is a story that doesn't outwardly say it, but chooses to ask the audience to embrace their personal selves.

It's a story that hasn't been told often, and one that Jenkins does with the candid realism that comes with the territory. Chiron's upbringing is itself a tragic tale slowly unveiled through cryptic, artful direction. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is far from perfect, and maybe shouldn't have had a child in the first place. Even then, there is optimism everywhere that Chiron looks. The world is willing to accept him, even at a young age as he hides among crack dens and sleeps over at strangers' houses. He is vulnerable and the feeling of being accepted is the film's core endearment. There's a sense of longing that comes through even as Chiron is the victim of bullying and forced to portray a harder exterior that isn't true to himself.

It's conflicting because it's an honest story that hasn't been seen seen before but has never been discussed openly. The black gay experience is still one that hasn't shown up at the Oscars and Moonlight is going to be a welcoming battering ram to those stories. It's a masculine story, but not one reliant on cliches or stereotypes. Chiron is far from pinned into a niche corner. He is a man coming to terms with deeper emotional struggles. Thankfully, the three periods that Jenkins focuses on manages to be candid and authentic in fashions that unveil deeper conflicts of its central characters. 

Most of all, the film is lovingly shot with several shots of its central cast shining like stars in the moonlight. Considering that few black films get quite this artful of cinematography, it becomes striking on another grounds. Much like Chiron is learning to be open in a world that persecutes him, the cinematography is learning to embrace itself in a landscape of predominantly white tales. The results are magnificent and mesmerizing, even meditative. It thankfully works even with the casual swearing and use of lower class vulgarities used to authenticate the film's setting. If nothing else, this is more than simply a black gay film. This is the black experience as an art form, of which isn't hung up specifically on sexuality. It's more interested in connectivity. It may not be every man's story, but hopefully it inspires more of them to be told with more tenderness and beauty.

Moonlight is a powerful film with a simple execution. The central story has plenty to say about how difficult it is to have an identity as a black man. Likewise, it is presented in such an artful way that what is seen almost seems futuristic; like cinema has opened a door to a new demographic. One can only hope that in a time where the medium wishes to expand to be more inclusive of every voice, that more of them look like Moonlight. It's one of the few masterpieces of 2016 and one that transcends subject matter. It isn't just about being gay. It's also about being human in a culture that expects stereotypes. Few films will come close to being this effective in 2016, though hopefully it will inspire more people to literally shoot for the moon and make art that matters to stories never told before. They more than deserve their place on camera.

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