A beautiful movie that has plenty of the poetry of life in it. (Review: Patrick Compton -9)
Following the OscarsSoWhite debate in Hollywood feels a lot like the ongoing discussion about quotas in South African cricket. There are people who feel that merit alone should dictate Oscar awards and places in cricket teams, while others believe this attitude conceals a spider’s nest of racist assumptions.
In Hollywood, indeed, there are those who say the dearth of awards for black actors in 2015-16 simply reflected the fact that actors who happened to be white produced the better work. Others strongly disagree.
The debate is a toxic one, and will remain so, particularly until the Academy restructures itself. In 2014, for example, only 2% of the Academy’s voters were black. That profile is changing, not just racially but also in favour of more women and younger voters generally.
Meanwhile, for those of us who are simply interested in good work getting rewarded, it’s a relief when movies of the undeniable quality of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Denzel Washington’s Fences receive Oscar nominations.
Moonlight, which landed in Durban last Friday, is a remarkable film about being black, gay and alienated. That doesn’t necessarily sound like hit material, but Jenkins has made a beautiful movie that has plenty of the poetry of life in it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, although movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes do come to mind.
The film, adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is a stunning character study of the boyhood, adolescence and early manhood of an African-American, Chiron, who comes from a Miami housing project.
The character is played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert, as an adolescent by Ashton Sanders and as a young man by Trevante Rhodes. All three give magnificent performances in their various different keys.
Chiron begins as a victim. He never knew his father, and is the son of a crack-addicted mother (superbly played by Naomie Harris) who has little time for him. He also harbours nascent feelings that he may be gay. It’s one of the ironies of the film that, in part one, he is taken under the wing of the community’s drug lord, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who surprises us with the degree of empathy he shows for the youngster.
It’s no great stretch to work out that life at school for someone like Chiron has got to be a nightmare, and so it proves. Timid, economic with words to an almost obsessive degree, Chiron is like an iceberg, with most of what defines him, particularly his feelings and thoughts, rigidly concealed from public view.
The theme of concealment continues throughout the film, so that when the grown-up Chiron appears in his final guise as a muscular, bling-garlanded drug dealer, we recognise that this may be his most successful disguise.
Moonlight, wonderfully shot in rich, glowing colours by cinematographer James Laxton, is the story of a life, and one of its major themes is the nature of manhood. How tough have we got to be to conceal our fragilities (being gay is not an obvious source of strength in African-American, or, indeed, African society), how much of the truth can we risk, and to what extent do we dare to be tender and expose ourselves to the emotional tsunami of love?
This is brought out, in varying degrees during the film, by Chiron’s roller-coaster of a friendship with Kevin, also finely played by three actors, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland as the adult.
Moonlight represents a series of happy surprises. It is not a conventional drama, not even a social-realist discourse on contemporary African-American society. It is nothing less than a deeply empathetic portrait of a life – that it is a gay black man’s life in the United States takes nothing away from its sense of universality.
Moonlight is currently running at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway Mall. – Patrick Compton