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Film Review: Moonlight

13 February 17 words: Thomas Watchorn

Another Oscar-tipped film is out in cinemas this week from writer/director Barry Jenkins

Heralded on arrival in the UK with numerous accolades (flagship UK film mag Sight and Sound have it second in their best of 2016), a first experience of Moonlight had the potential to suffer under expectation. For me it sort of did, but it’s undeniably strong and proves the need for diversity in storytelling. Everyone stands to benefit.

Moonlight comprises three vignettes or chapters in the life of Chiron, a black youth coming of age and recognising his sexuality in a community that prides and only accepts specific exhibitions of masculinity. It should be noted that the film is almost entirely predictable, there’s no real possibility of ‘spoilers’. While the certain obviousness removes some dramatic tension, it also allows for greater investment in the hows and whys, and the drama inherent in the minor moments playing out.

Each of the chapters is titled after the names given to Chiron by others at those specific points in his life, and helps structure the film as about a kind of composite character. Forced by himself and his surroundings into being different people, he adapts more and more to pass and survive but still maintains elements of his one, ‘true’ self.

The first chapter, ‘little’, finds and defines Chiron as a child, though more an object in adults’ lives than a person in his own right. These adults, most of his whole world, are his addict mother (a terrifying and nuanced Naomie Harris) and the couple who essentially become surrogate parents (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). His future as far as these adults are concerned is already mapped and understood; how he is treated is a response more to who they believe he will be rather than who he is in the now. The judgement and rigid societal roles are already insidiously taking root, and the small moments of sensitive freedom depicted are all the more affecting because their rarity is clear even now.

The judgement and rigid societal roles are already insidiously taking root, and the small moments of sensitive freedom depicted are all the more affecting because their rarity is clear even now.

The second chapter, ‘Chiron’, finds him as a teenager, that uncertain nexus of flux. He’s made something of a conscious decision to transfer loyalties between certain characters but otherwise remains mostly free of agency. There’s an irony that this chapter is titled after his name, a locked-in certainty, while his life and sense of self is messily attempting to be defined. It’s during this most confused point in his life though that the two events which do most define Chiron occur; a passive act of honest love and an active moment of fatalistic violence. Both are shot to possess a tactile, visceral quality which calls into sharper focus how subdued the rest of the film is, so it’s not difficult to understand how these are such defining events for the future Chiron.

The final chapter, ‘Black’, finds Chiron much older. There’s almost the sense that we have arrived too late for this character, because there’s little recognisable semblance of Chiron present under his sculpted exhibitions of masculinity. Even his relationship with his mother has changed, partly because she is a resident at some kind of clinic or home, free of her addictions, but just as much because Chiron is no longer the boy who ‘walked funny’. He is what Black is supposed to be. Of course, this carefully cultivated masquerade is immediately challenged by the reappearance of a central figure from his past.

A phrase that’s bandied around a lot when discussing films not centred on white, heteronormative and predominately male experiences is “it’s not just about x, it’s a universal story”. I don’t buy this at all, and it does whatever’s being talked about and audiences a great disservice by suggesting the only way (certain) audiences can and are prepared to engage with art is if it directly relates to their lived experience. Moonlight’s power lies in how simply and confidently it conveys the quietly traumatic consequences of oppression, and of how willing we are to sacrifice ourselves and wants for the sake of remaining an accepted member of a community, through a specifically  black, specifically gay paradigm. Its standalone power is stronger for its specificity, and its specificity is vital in this societal moment.

Moonlight will be showing at Broadway Cinema from Friday 17 February 2017.

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