After La La Land nearly snatched victory from the jaws of hideous Oscars embarrassment, the ceremony's true victor Moonlight will be gaining a huge upsurge in attention while still in its UK opening week. You should still watch it, even if the Academy doesn't know what it's talking about, if hardscrabble coming-of-age dramas have been done, and if you think you know what a film will be like that concerns an African American man questioning his identity and sexuality. It's richer, more patient and, as it seems to be winning hearts, well qualified to win prizes more tangible.
(i) The Story
Chiron is a quiet, black boy in a Miami housing project, whom we first meet fleeing from bullies. Or perhaps friends armed with rocks. Actually in this first section he is called Little, an appellation given by his peers. Taking shelter in an empty, derelict house of dodgy reputation, he's found by kindly Juan who offers to take him home. Little stays silent, instead choosing to hang out with his rescuer, pragmatic and attentive but also a drug kingpin. We soon find out why Little desperately wants to avoid home, and why he spends time with Juan and his partner – Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe are respectively radiantly warm and big-sister practical, and Ali's Supporting Actor Oscar is deserved for giving the audience such conflicted feelings about someone cool, attractive of character and nurturing, who is also complicit in the erosion of his community. Moonlight's other award was for its director Barry Jenkins's Adapted Screenplay, and that it comes across with keenly observed subtlety is partly due to the fact that this fiction work cleaves so close to his autobiography. Will the central character be defined by bullies, by Juan, or discover himself on his own?
(ii) On Screen
Seeing this tale in the cinema was its natural habitat – though a three-act structure is reminiscent of the stage, the elegiac, dreamlike unfolding of time could only be achieved on screen. After a blank-screen act-break, part (ii) is called 'Chiron'. Now in his teenage years, his outsider status has deepened. Daringly, in an un-Boyhoodlike move, a different actor plays him in each act, without much physical resemblance between them - a tale of identity repression and construction suits such a device. Indeed in the titular phrase "in moonlight, black boys look blue", the moonlight is what shows someone in a certain light, and elicits a name or nickname being given to them. The light thrown on Chiron and his fellow players by cinematographer James Laxton is bold, high-contrast to emphasise the beat of the Miami sun and with an arresting colour palette.1 Sometimes the shooting combines with the score to take us far from a realist treatment of the story - such dreamlike treatment isn't a flight from reality, rather a fantasia on Chiron's colourful, uncertain inner world. Respect also to Nicholas Britell's delicate classical score, which takes oblique inspiration from the chopped and screwed hip hop with which it shares soundtrack space.
The final third, 'Black', has more to say about the constructed nature of masculinity, showing our hero still in conflict. But many parts of this indie film belie its cultural specificity - halting romantic gestures and second thoughts are pretty much universal, and Moonlight has just been garlanded with the most prestigious award in cinema - and I'm glad Barry Jenkins realised the story in this way. Fierily needy Naomie Harris is awesomely repellent as the mother similar to his own; Alex R Hibbert very strong as the first iteration of our hero; the use of symbols is great but not overpowering, especially the presence of the sea, offering transcendence and renewal; and much is underplayed, such as the social consciousness and even the homophobia, allowing the central journey to be made in an honest way. This all says something about filmmaking, and that sometimes people best shed light on their own stories.
1 It wasn't this striking use of colour alone that brought to mind Lubaina Himid's 'Invisible Strategies' exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. Himid's work re-centralised black characters in traditionally Euro-canonical art, and in her 'Le Rodeur' series the ocean is a constant presence, threatening and calming, glimpsed through windows. Moonlight's edits give the ocean a similar role with its unnaturally big sonic presence, heard before it can be seen.