It’s not often that a film comes along that feels like it’s playing on your every sense. ‘Moonlight’, directed by Barry Jenkins, is just that. Feeling a bit feverish most likely didn’t help, but I spent most of the film’s 111 minutes with a profound chill down my spine and a hypnotised gaze on my face.
I won’t spoil anything for you but the film is basically an intimate three-part story of a young queer black kid named Chiron growing up in Liberty City (Miami), based on the semi-autobiographical Tarell Alvin McCraney play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’. Chiron’s home situation is so dire that he prefers to stay out at all hours, until he meets an unlikely mentor and his partner, beautifully played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe. We follow Chiron through a period of about 2 decades as he navigates the struggle of severe bullying and a dysfunctional home life, sexual identity, finding human connection and socio-economic disenfranchisement. Director Barry Jenkins grew up in Liberty City, which explains why the film’s depiction of an area predominantly known for its crime and poverty rate was shown with a serenity firmly rooted in realness. Each and every actor gracing the screen gives a perfectly pitched performance, with British actor Naomie Harris in a star-making turn as Chiron’s addiction-plagued mother. Reports say Harris shot all of her scenes in three days without rehearsal, which is just wild. Each of the three actors portraying Chiron bring a different set of nuances and tangible depth to the character and the weighted periods of silence contrasted with the extraordinary scenography, especially during the night-time scenes, eagerly enriched the storyline. I could just hear Solange’s falsetto “You're a superstar, always shining in the night and your skin glowing in the moonlight” at every turn. Add to that a sickeningly poignant score by composer Nicholas Britell (12 Years a Slave, The Big Short…) and that’s me knocked back in my seat. The story may not exactly apply to everyone’s personal situation, but almost anyone could tell you about those moments growing up when all you wanted to feel was a deeper sense of connection, to your peers or yourself. It’s important to note however that even though many might be able to relate to the film’s universal themes, that should not efface the fact that this is an expression of queer cinema. Emphasis on ‘expression’, because no one film can represent an entire genre, and ‘Moonlight’ definitely does not. But for me, this story felt extremely personal in many ways. I was that scrawny kid (still not pushing too much on the scales here, but I digress), looking in the mirror each morning before school, mantra-ing: “Today, I’m going to be tough. I’ll lower my voice and just blend in”. To no avail, obviously. I just haven’t seen black masculinity and queerness so sensitively depicted before, and that’s big. It’s encouraging that a film like this is being bankrolled at all (thanks Brad Pitt), widely released and even universally lauded (not that it matters too much, but 8 Oscar noms are not to be sniffed at). The co-organisers of the Belgian screening, a community initiative dedicated to the visibility of African (diaspora) art named RECOGNITION, told the audience about the amount of setbacks they faced trying to get this film to be shown locally. Cinemas thought that nobody would come out in droves to see a story like this, but two sold-out back-to-back premieres sure proved them otherwise, to the testament of the organisers’ perseverance. Their main message was that in times like these, we need to “protect and take care of one another”. It really is high time that everyone realises that there is a huge audience for stories that don’t pivot around a straight, white narrative. People in the margin of society and Hollywood alike deserve a greater variety of representation. If that is not morally convincing to studio execs, Moonlight’s box office success can at least plead this case financially.