The movie Moonlight is based on an unproduced play by Black gay wunderkind (MacArthur Award winner) Tarrell Alvin McRaney. I saw McRaney's Choir Boy in Los Angeles and enjoyed it quite a bit so I was excited when I started seeing ads for Moonlight and seeing the overwhelmingly positive reviews on NPR and elsewhere.
I saw the movie more than 6 weeks ago but first pressures around the 2016 election and then reactions to the surprising results delayed my ability to engage with writing this review. Since then, Moonlight has become highly celebrated, and now that movie award season has become, the film and one of the stars Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, House of Cards, Alphas) is starting to get Oscar buzz.
This is somewhat surprising, because although the film is quite good, and very emotionally affecting, it is ultimately a very "small" film, I'm not disparaging it by using the adjective, it is simply factual to note that it has a relatively small cast. Also, it is primarily the story of how one black boy grows up to be a man. Obviously, the subject matter resonates with me, especially when it turns out that the black boy (who his mother calls Chiron) is different from the other little boys in one specific way: he's probably gay, and he is being raised in near-abject poverty by a drug-addicted single mother.
The main character of Moonlight is played by three different actors, as the movie follows him at three distinct stages of his life. First we see him as "Little," an almost non-verbal, small-for-his-age child who is being abused by other kids his age. Then later we see him as Chiron, a shy, gangly and (sexually) conflicted teenager who is (still) being bullied by kids his age. In the third stage we see him as "Black," an impressively muscular, imposing Black man who has the typical accoutrements of a "thug" and no one is going to be bullying.
It's the "Little" segment of the film which is primarily getting most of the attention (and that's where Ali makes most of his on-screen time, in a memorable supporting role). For my money, I think the performances by the two main female supporting actors in the film are even more affecting: Teresa (played by Janelle Monae) and Paula (played by Naomie Harris). Paula is Chiron's biological mother, but Teresa is basically a surrogate mother-figure, primarily appearing in the second segment.
The accolades the ensemble cast is receiving are richly deserved.
For me it is the final segment, featuring Trevante Rhodes (damn, who is that phyne brutha?) as the grown-up Chiron, who now goes by the name of "Black" which resonated the most with me (and the other gay men I saw it with). Ultimately, however, I was disappointed by how the central tension of the film was resolved (in my opinion it was not resolved, but adroitly side-stepped in a way that was frustrating). That's not to say that Moonlight is disappointing, I hope I am communicating that my feelings are exactly the opposite. The film's portrayal of Black boys and Black men on screen is something so rare, nuanced and lyrical that ultimately seeing Moonlight is one of the most rewarding experiences in the theater I have had for a very long time.
Director: Barry Jenkins.
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.
Release Date: October 21, 2016.
Viewing Date: October 30, 2016.
Overall Grade: A (4.0/4.0).