Moonlit reflections on my favorite Best Picture nominee.
This year I’ve seen exactly two of the Best Picture nominees that will be celebrated at the 2017 Academy Awards. And I believe one of those is the one that should win.
Yes, I loved the New England depression-fest Manchester by the Sea, with its gray late-winteriness and alcoholic Massachusetts fishermen. I am of the determined opinion that Afflecks should not be in movies where they do not have Boston accents. (Gone Girl was an exception for the elder Affleck, but seriously get that dude out of the Batman cowl and what the hell was that weird 30’s gangster thing that was unwatchable even in trailer form??) But I loved Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight even more, and if there is any justice in the Academy, it should emerge the victor on Sunday night.
Let’s be honest though, there’s a good chance it’ll be LaLa Land, the Gosling/Stone-led modern movie musical that I refuse to see based on principle (there are important movies here, enough with this BS Oscar bait!) but will obviously end up watching if only to see anything remotely resembling the brilliance of Emma Stone’s lip sync battle.
But I digress.
Moonlight is the best picture of the year, regardless of who holds the golden statue on Sunday. And it’s the best picture because it accomplishes what so few films do, especially now, especially in the age of endlessly developed prestige TV narratives: it invites us into a character’s story that seems to have instant and infinite depth.
The story of this character, Chiron, begins in his early childhood, progresses through teenage years, and ends with a glimpse at him in adulthood. The cinematography is as gripping as the performances by the actors who play Chiron in each stage of life: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively. And talk about instant depth: Mahershala Ali, who appears only in act one of the film but snagged a Best Supporting Actor nom nonetheless, is rivetingly real as the compassionate drug dealer Juan who takes the bullied and beleaguered “Little” Chiron under his wing. I will not soon forget the dining table scene in which Chiron demands to know if Juan is a dealer, because his mother is an addict; and Juan answers in the affirmative by hanging his head in palpable shame and regret.
But while stunning shots worthy of Terrence Malick and performances that are as authentic as actual life make Moonlight a truly great film, it’s the subject matter that makes it an important and timely one. Chiron is, of course, a black boy becoming a black man, in the everyday poverty of the Miami projects. And Chiron is also gay, peeling back the layers of a sexual identity that is known by his bullies before it is fully understood by himself. That a film focuses in on the black male experience in such visceral and vulnerable terms is in and of itself courageous; that it homes in on the complexity of sexuality in the midst of all these other intersecting socio-political pressures and forces is nothing short of a triumph. There is no point in this less than two hour film that we experience anything resembling a lazy stereotype or cultural cliche. Instead, what we see is blackness and gayness as sheer humanity, unabashed and unrelenting. And therein lies the infinite depth, the magic that keeps lingering beyond the open-ended final scenes and continues to haunt my own contemplation long after viewing.
Christianity Today recently released a review of the film that argued for Christians to embrace its opportunity to empathize while rejecting its “unorthodox” sexuality. By even making such a disclaimer or admonition, the review robs the film of its central power: to upend the cultural, and often Christian, power structures that reduce oppressed people to topics of debate.
In times like these, the propensity of the powerful to categorize, control, and perpetuate the system of oppression must be resisted and, if possible, overturned. Moonlight’s message is a glowing blue shock to this exact system – if we will receive it.
I participated in a complimentary screening of the film for the purposes of this review.