Academy Award Wins: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor
Notable Festivals: Telluride, New York, BFI London
It’s rare that the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is actually awarded to a film that truly merits the honor. Just as we look to box office dominance as a major (if mistaken) barometer of a film’s quality, the desire to declare a definitive “winner” is so deeply-rooted in the competitive nature of American cinema that we easily forget the Best Picture award is meant to honor the craft of producing— not whether a film is the objective “best”. This is why mismatches between the Best Picture winner and the Best Director winner occur with such frequency. The nuance of the category has been lost —or, perhaps, intentionally ignored — over the years, along with the perception of prestige it promises to bear. It’s not uncommon to completely forget which film was selected on a given year, sometimes not even twelve months on from its win.
The circumstances of MOONLIGHT’s win at the 2017 Academy Awards have ensured that its shocking victory won’t soon be forgotten. Critics immediately hailed director Barry Jenkins’ long-delayed follow up to MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008) as an important work and one of the very finest releases of 2016, but its bid for Oscar consideration faced stiff competition from Damien Chazelle’s lavish throwback musical, LA LA LAND— the kind of richly-budgeted, affectionate ode to Old Hollywood so often showered with praise by Academy voters. As Oscar night unfolded, the narrative of LA LA LAND’s inevitable win seemed all but written in stone,, culminating in Chazelle’s win for Best Director. When Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty took the stage to announce LA LA LAND as the recipient of the Best Picture prize, the night was over… until suddenly, it wasn’t. I had read an article earlier in the day about the statistical impossibility of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm tasked with tabulating the voting results and delivering them to presenters, accidentally announcing the wrong winner; the memory of the article had briefly crossed my mind as Dunaway and Beatty opened the envelope, so when LA LA LAND producer Jordan Horowitz interrupted the victory speech to announce that there had been a massive mistake and that MOONLIGHT was the actual winner, it was like slipping into an alternate timeline.
MOONLIGHT’s Oscar surprise was, in every sense of the word, historic. Even without the eleventh-hour plot twist, its inclusion into what is supposedly a canon of special films to be cherished through the generations would be groundbreaking on the merits of being the first Best Picture winner to feature an all-black cast and LGBTQ subject matter. As influential independent films often do, MOONLIGHT seemed to come out of nowhere— a crackling lightning bolt that formed in the blink of an eye to strike at the core of the zeitgeist. The reality was far less dramatic, encompassing a thirteen year slog wherein the material was steadily developed and reworked while its creators’ jockeyed their respective careers into better position. MOONLIGHT began life as an unpublished stage play by Miami-based playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney, written in 2003 as an expression of his personal struggles in the wake of his mother’s death from AIDS (1), only to be thrown into the proverbial drawer for the subsequent decade. Titled “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue”, the play eventually caught the attention of the Miami-based arts collective Borscht, who commissioned the creation of Jenkins’ short film CLOROPHYL in 2011.
Independently, Jenkins had been searching for material from which to craft his sophomore feature, growing increasingly despondent as the years passed with no long-form project to show for it. The extent of any development towards this end consisted of a few prompts & prods buried in his Gchat log with Adele Romanski, a producer he knew from back in his FSU days and who had married James Laxton, his regular cinematographer (2). His eventual collaboration with Borscht on CLOROPHYL, then, would prove surprisingly consequential: it was during production of that film that Jenkins was introduced to McCraney’s unpublished play and immediately recognized a profound personal connection to the material (3). Though Jenkins couldn’t fully identify with McCraney’s dramatic meditation on the compounded perils of growing up gay and Black, this fellow son of Miami nevertheless could sympathize with the struggle to recognize and assert one’s identity in an inhospitable environment. It was from this perspective as an ally that Jenkins adapted McCraney’s play into a film script during a trip to Brussels (4).
Jenkins’ success on the festival circuit with MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY had provided him with a prestigious gig judging and moderating Q&A’s for films selected to screen at the Telluride Film Festival, where he would find himself in 2013 as the moderator fielding questions for director Steve McQueen following a screening of his eventual Best Picture winner, 12 YEARS A SLAVE. That film had been produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment, who had also met with Jenkins following MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s release. In casual conversation following that Q&A, Plan B head Dede Gardner and other executives asked what Jenkins had been working on recently; little did they know he was about to pitch them their next Oscar winner for Best Picture.
While we can’t know how exactly Jenkins pitched MOONLIGHT without talking to the man directly, it’s a safe bet that a key factor in both Plan B’s coming aboard so quickly and distributor A24’s decision to finance and actively produce for the first time (5) lay in the deeply humanistic perspective that Jenkins and McCraney bring to the story of a young Black man in Miami coming to terms with his sexuality over a span of fifteen years. Both McCraney’s stage play and Jenkins’ subsequent screenplay fragment the narrative into three distinct parts that confer a different name on the protagonist as a means to separate his most formative phases: his childhood (Little), adolescence (Chiron), and adulthood (Black). Where source material and adaptation diverge, however, is in their presentation: McCraney’s play called for the three chapters to unfold concurrently, ostensibly to create the perception of three distinct characters only to ultimately reveal that they are the same person (19). Jenkins would choose a traditional — but no less effective — route, presenting them separately in chronological order. Far from a simplistic choice, Jenkins reportedly drew inspiration from a similar structure found in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s “Three Times” (2005)(6), using the opportunity of a fragmented narrative and the necessity of casting three very different actors portraying a single protagonist at various ages to convey how one’s environment can induce actual, physical change in response. This narrative idea is easily MOONLIGHT’s most subtle on an intellectual level, but it carries a visceral subconscious message about the larger forces that shape our identities in ways far beyond our control.
The first fragment introduces us to a small boy affectionately nicknamed Little, played by Alex R. Hibbert as a quiet, wide-eyed latchkey kid whose sexuality hasn’t even come into the equation yet, and yet he’s already being antagonized by his peers for a perceived “otherness”. He’s not like the other boys; it’s obvious in “the way he walks”— an observation made by Noamie Harris’ Paula, the self-loathing mother to Little, to Mahershala Ali’s Juan, the neighborhood drug dealer who feels an unexpected compassion for the little man. Harris, Ali, and recording artist Janelle Monaé are easily the biggest names in MOONLIGHT, leaving tremendous impressions despite scant screen time (Ali only appears in the first chapter, and Harris squeezed her entire performance into three shooting days). In playing a character whose helpless addiction to crack causes her to spiral from a respectable occupation in nursing to a lifetime of debasing herself in pursuit of diminishing highs, Harris was reportedly reluctant to even take on a role that trafficked so heavily in ubiquitous stereotypes (7). However, upon learning that both McCraney and Jenkins’ take on Paula was informed by his experience with his own mother, she was able to channel a three-dimensional pathos that invites our pity and our scorn in equal measure. Ali would go on to become the first actor of Muslim faith to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Juan, drawing out the inherent humanity in a character that lesser films would reduce to caricature or stock archetypes. Juan, an African-Cuban immigrant trying his hand at the American Dream, becomes an unexpected father figure to Little just as Paula’s effectiveness as a parent starts to unravel.
Monaé’s Teresa, live-in partner to Juan, subsequently becomes a warm substitute to Paula’s growing hostilities. She follows Little where Juan can’t — into MOONLIGHT’s second fragment, which documents a formative episode from the boy’s gangly teenage years. Not so little anymore, he’s dropped the childhood nickname in favor of his given one, Chiron. Monaé, with her otherworldly grace and warm elegance, strikes a stark contrast to the dumpster fire that is Paula, pinned down at the rock bottom of her addiction. Chiron, played here by Ashton Sanders, finds himself bouncing between these opposing maternal forces while trying to figure out what it really means to embrace his masculinity (and by extension, the realization that he’s attracted to other men). The centerpiece scene in this fragment (and arguably the entire film) is a moonlit encounter between Chiron and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), wherein both boys surrender their performative masculinity to their true feelings; a brief acknowledgment of each other’s humanity before their guard must come back up at daybreak, and the cycle of casual cruelties begins anew.
The third fragment picks up some years later in Atlanta, where Chiron is making a decent — if illegitimate — living as a drug dealer. As played by Trevante Rhodes, this Chiron is unrecognizable from his previous two iterations, having bulked up to an intimidating physicality while obscuring his charming smile behind a chunky gold grill. He goes by the name of Black now, a nickname affectionately given to him by Kevin in Part 2 that is now the last remaining vestige of the boy he used to be. Jenkins structures this third act as a double reunion, with Black being lured back to Miami by an unexpected phone call from Kevin, now an ex-con working as a cook at a quiet neighborhood diner. Along the way, he visits Paula at her rehabilitation clinic to seek an uneasy peace. André Holland delivers a memorably inviting performance as the adult Kevin, who has mellowed out after his time in prison and wishes to reconnect with Black after their moonlit rendezvous all those years ago. Black hasn’t touched anyone — let alone another man — since, having subsumed any sense of an inner sexual life in favor of a caricature of the person he thinks the world wants him to be. In finally reconnecting with Kevin, Black realizes the truth that his environment had worked so hard all his life to obscure: that he is a person worthy of love, and that true self-realization means embracing vulnerability rather than rejecting it.
MOONLIGHT’s unique aesthetic endeavors to construct a visual representation of a “beautiful nightmare”, a phrase used by Jenkins to describe Miami’s particular combination of sun-dappled lushness and outsized class disparity. Working once again with his regular cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins uses an economic, yet stylish, approach to show audiences a different side of Miami. Far from MIAMI VICE’s glittering cityscapes or SCARFACE’s opulent neoclassical mansions, Jenkins’ Miami sees a canopy of palm trees hang over the pastel housing projects of Liberty Square, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where Jenkins grew up (8). Despite going so far as to even include members of the local population as cast members, Jenkins deliberately avoids the “documentary” approach undertaken by so many contemporary indie dramas (9). Instead, he and Laxton adopt a classical, romantic approach more in line with Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous portraits of heartache and longing. Framing in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the filmmakers soften the crisp lines rendered by the 2K Arri Alexa XT Plus sensor with vintage Hawk and Angenieux lenses. The 35mm and 65mm primes would emerge as their preferred focal lengths, creating a dreamy, romantic bokeh wherein the background dissolves into an impressionistic, circular smear.
Laxton further works towards Jenkins’ vision with a considered approach to light, color, and movement. There’s a diffuse, white quality to MOONLIGHT’s daylight, rendering a buttery palette of color without being too overly saturated. Befitting a locale that’s usually soaked in sunlight, Laxton opts to expose the image with a high contrast ratio, oftentimes illuminating his subjects with a single source of light and no fill (9). In the color correction suite, Jenkins and Laxton further manipulated their 2K digital intermediate by adding a blue tinge to their blacks, while giving each story fragment its own subtle look meant to emulate the chromatic qualities of different film stocks. Little’s segment endeavors to replicate Fuji’s distinctive rendering of skin tones, while Chiron’s emphasizes cyan colors in a manner reminiscent of an old German stock manufactured by Afga. If Black’s segment seems more vivid than the preceding two, it’s because it draws inspiration from a modified Kodak stock that adds an exaggerated “pop” to color (9). Laxton’ s camerawork imbues an organic fluidity into Jenkins’ storytelling with handheld and Steadicam movements in select moments, such as an opening shot that tracks Juan’s pathway around the neighborhood as he makes the rounds to his dealers on the block, inadvertently crossing paths with Little for the first time.
Jenkins pairs MOONLIGHT’s dreamy cinematography with a gorgeous, thematically-rich score from composer Nicholas Britell, who follows his director’s attempts to bridge the divide between the “arthouse” picture and “hood” sub genres by fusing an orchestral score with the rhythms and traditions of hip-hop. He begins with a central theme arranged for strings, which is intensely melancholic and suffused with pathos. While perceptibly simple in melody, the piece is highly flexible; Britell can complicate it with added orchestral elements as the story demands, or he can deconstruct it by breaking apart its various elements and processing them into samples or loops. This practice is referred to as “chopped & screwed” by southern hip-hop artists, and Jenkins and Britell employ it throughout MOONLIGHT to evoke the inner conflict that roils Chiron’s beautiful soul. Often sounding like an orchestra tuning up or breaking down entirely, Britell constructs the musical equivalent of chasing an elusive inner harmony. He even samples sound effects from prior scenes, like the soft “clap” of a handshake between Chiron and Kevin, subsequently processing it and transforming it into a percussive or rhythmic element. The overall approach is one of building outwards from the starting point of character, reflected even in an eclectic mix of needle drops that range from classical compositions to vintage R&B, hip-hop and trap— all of which work to evoke a sort of “sense memory” on the part of Chiron; in other words, music as another part of the environment making a physical impact on our protagonist.
With his three features to date, Jenkins’ primary artistic interest in Black identity is made plainly evident, but his overpowering sense of empathy & compassion separates him from similarly-minded directors. MOONLIGHT follows MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY in exploring identity through the lens of sexuality and masculinity. McCraney’s source material stages Chiron’s search for self against the backdrop of the “hood” culture so prevalent in low-income and impoverished communities, fueled by a compelling observation: in such communities, where power and privilege are in short supply and patriarchal ideals inform the bedrock of social structure, men tend to emphasize their masculinity in exaggerated manners as a way of asserting more power for themselves (10). This adds another layer of conflict atop Chiron’s struggles, creating an oppressive environment that’s almost sentient in its attempts to suppress a noncomforming identity. It’s also what allows Jenkins, a straight man, to successfully make that empathic leap and convincingly depict Chiron’s emerging homosexuality. Indeed, the larger prism of humanity — more so than sexuality — informs his storytelling. MOONLIGHT’s Miami is Jenkins’ Miami; these are his people. By finding his own personal connection to the material on a broader scale, he’s able to encourage a wider audience to do the same without resorting to maudlin sentiments or cheap ploys for sympathy.
Jenkins’ human-scale depiction of Miami, like MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s San Francisco before it, speaks to his fundamental interest in regionalism. Jenkins’ ability to render a vivid, tactile sense of place stems from the same well of humanistic compassion that fuels his exploration of Black identity. Rather than shoot recognizable landmarks or lean into the cliches of the local culture, Jenkins stages MOONLIGHT in locations that mean something to him, like the aforementioned Liberty Square housing projects where he grew up. In his commentary track for the film, Jenkins ruminates on the very real possibility that the buildings they shot in may very well have been demolished— the latest victim of gentrification and the radical reshaping of urban environments as playgrounds for the affluent. In this context, MOONLIGHT takes on added depth by capturing a vanishing Miami, rooted in small details that illustrate the socioeconomic fabric of the city as woven by its working class. Specific images linger in the mind, like Little taking refuge from his pint-sized tormentors in the crumbling ruins of a deserted tenement building; Chiron aimlessly riding a tram in a loop around town because it doesn’t cost anything; a security guard breaking up a vicious schoolyard fight, his mere presence evidencing the normalized hostility of an entire student body. It’s now something of a cliché to claim a story’s setting is a character unto itself, but MOONLIGHT can actually make that claim with a straight face— like a sentient person, Jenkins’ Miami physically acts upon our protagonists, prompting emotional and physiological response in a manner that advances the narrative.
MOONLIGHT’s success on the festival and awards circuit is well documented, initially premiering at Telluride before going on at the Toronto, New York, and BFI London film festivals. After its historic Oscar wins (which, out of 8 total nominations, also included a golden statue for Jenkins in the Best Adapted Screenplay category), the film entered wide release in cinemas, earning a worldwide gross of $65 million against a budget that fluctuates between $1.5 and $4 million depending on who’s talking. Now several years removed from its tumultuous Oscar night victory, MOONLIGHT’s worthiness of the honor has only solidified, and is well on its way to becoming regarded as a timeless classic. Often cited as one of the best films of a still-nascent 21st century (11), Jenkins’ sophomore feature evidences a filmmaker rapidly blossoming into his prime. Indeed, the leap from a scrappy low-budget debut to a splashy, awards-showered masterpiece hasn’t been seen on this steep of an arc since Michael Cimino, but one can reasonably expect that Jenkins won’t follow in the same ruinous footsteps as the vainglorious director of THE DEER HUNTER (1978). He’s simply too humble, too compassionate; his films aren’t a self-aggrandizing attempt at bolstering his own glory, they are genuine attempts at highlighting the beauty of our imperfect and impermanent humanity.
MOONLIGHT is currently available on 4K ultra high definition Blu ray via Lionsgate.
Written by: Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney
Produced by: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Director of Photography: James Laxton
Edited by: Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders
Music by: Nicholas Britell
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