Sunday, 19 February 2017

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

"My eyes don't shed tears but boy they ball when I'm thinkin' 'bout you," sang Frank Ocean on Thinkin Bout You from his 2012 album 'Channel Orange'. It was a watershed moment. Here was a young black man - a hip hop artist in an aggressively straight world - not only showing emotion, but showing emotion for another man.

Now, with the Oscar-nominated Moonlight, cinema has caught up. It's an exploration of African-American masculinity, following the life of Chiron from youth to adulthood (the connotations of his name from Greek mythology are surely no coincidence). In many ways, his life feels like a cinematic cliché: he's so shy he's practically mute, he's bullied at school, his mother is a drug addict, and with no father he lacks a male role model. Yet this sort of life is tragically commonplace in current day America.

Things pick up when the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), known as 'Little', by chance meets Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a sympathetic figure, straddling the harsh world of drug dealing and a comfortable home life with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Together they provide Chiron with something his mother (Naomie Harris) could never provide: safety, comfort, acceptance.

As he grows up, Chiron struggles to dictate his own path as he navigates the alternate worlds Juan so effortlessly balances. He eventually ends up serving a prison sentence before becoming a drug dealer, but was this inevitable with such a selfish, emotionally abusive mother? Were Juan and Teresa powerless to stop this downfall?

It's telling that the film is divided into three sections for each of Chiron's identities: Little, Chiron and Black. No matter which identity he chooses - the shy child, the explorative teenager, the mask of an aggressive thug - he remains the same person underneath. His experiences shape him, but they do not dictate his identity.

That is the key message of this film: to be a man is to accept your identity, your flaws, your decisions and take responsibility for your life, no matter what your background. You can cry and still be a man. You can show vulnerability and still be a man. You can love and support your mother and still be a man. You can be gay and still be a man.

Barry Jenkins directs with tenderness and delicacy, the camera lingering on his subject questioningly but without judgement. Orchestral strings take the place of diagetic hip-hop - the soundtrack fittingly subverting masculine expectations - but mostly it's overwhelming silence that reflects the amount of noise inside Chiron's head.

The performances are indeed Oscar-worthy, in particular Ali's touching portrayal of Juan that's equal parts hard and soft, and Harris' frightening performance as Chiron's mother that's far removed from the Miss Moneypenny we know from Bond. And the three actors playing Chiron - Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes - do a remarkable job between them of depicting a single, confused man in crisis.

And to think, this film has been released in such a tumultuous time in US history. Crumbling relations between the black community and the police. The shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse. The country's first black president leaving office for...whatever Trump is. Even the #oscarssowhite debacle and the snubbing of black artists at music awards. Black identity, masculinity and homosexuality are in crisis and Moonlight encapsulates all this and more. It is the most Oscar-worthy film of the lot. An awards snub would be painfully ironic.


Watch: Moonlight is out now.