“Running around catching, a lot of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you – blue.” These are the powerful words said by Juan a drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.
We’re all familiar with the saying “once in a blue moon” and that’s exactly what ‘Moonlight’ is. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of film, a true rarity. It shows a side of blackness that is often shunned by the mainstream media. The director of ‘Moonlight’ Barry Jenkins opens our eyes to a side of blackness that is not normally seen on the big screen. ‘Moonlight’ is more than a coming of age film and much more than a film about sexuality. It delves into the black stereotype, dissects it and challenges our view of how a black man should act, feel or behave.
The film is an adaptation of MacArthur genius grant recipient, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play ‘In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue’ (a title which gives the film one of its most poignant scenes). The film invites us into the world of Chiron, a young black boy living in the projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mother played by Naomi Harris who is addicted to drugs. The journey of Chiron is split into three different chapters – childhood, teenage years and manhood, and spans two decades. Chiron is played by a trio of actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, each reflecting the periods of one life perfectly into the one character.
In each chapter we see Chiron trying to navigate life as black man who doesn’t fit into the societal perception of what a black man should be. Throughout the film we are placed inside Chiron’s world, a closeness that cements an emotional connection to his familial struggle, a struggle with his evolving sexuality and a struggle with his sense of self.
The themes of intimacy, connection and acceptance are reflected throughout ‘Moonlight’, with patient screen time dedicated to each character in its ensemble cast. Mannerisms, expressions and physical actions, illuminate the screen, making each encounter more powerful than the words spoken. While the attention to light, the framing of each scene and the particular detail given to those tender moments of Chiron’s life, give the film its focal point. One of the most memorable scenes of the film (which undoubtedly warranted Mahershala Ali’s Oscar win), is when Juan teaches Chiron to swim. Capturing the vulnerability of this black boy and the role of a self-appointed father figure from the community, it’s a theme not only in childhood of Chiron, but in the personal lives of both Barry Jenkins (director) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (playwright). Although Barry and Tarell both grew up in Liberty City and shared the personal struggles of growing up with a drug addicted mother, they hadn’t met each other prior to the coming together on the film.
It was important to me to show from the beginning how the community is active in Chiron’s life – Tarell Alvin McCraney
Jenkins manages to challenge the stereotype of the black man and the black community, successfully adapting the vision of McCraney’s original screenplay, and showcasing the depth of those bonds. “The community knows things about him before he knows them about himself. People want to place him in a category before he even understands what that means. This happens to all of us, whether we’re male, female, black, white, straight or gay. There are moments when our community decides to tell us what they see us as. How we respond to that makes our struggle very real, and deeply in uences how our lives unfold,” McCraney says.
Yes he has the stereotypical drug dealer and drug addict characters, but they are more complex than that. Jenkins shows that blackness is more multifaceted that what you may perceive. He tackles the issues surrounding, masculinity and homosexuality within the black community by breaking down the image of the black man. Hyper-masculinity is often a key characteristic in society’s portrayal of the black man; Jenkins shows that’s its okay for black men to be vulnerable. There is an assurance that it’s okay to show how you’re feeling, you don’t have to hide behind the mask of the macho black man. At times ‘Moonlight’ feels like a release of energy, the freeing of society’s perception of what a black man should be. It shows that black men have many layers, and the story of a black man is not straightforward and that’s okay.
‘Moonlight’ is a moving and refreshing reflection of the complexity of blackness; it celebrates the beauty of vulnerability, the joy and pain of living life as a black man in society. You may find yourself weeping during the film; its honest reflection of the depth of the black man is something that has never been shown on the big screen, and it’s also something that is rarely spoken about within the black community. ‘Moonlight’ is a film for all black men, regardless of sexual orientation, it explores the nuances of being black, being accepted, being included, being excluded, and the emotional toll it takes through multiple stages of their lives. Yet it’s a comforting film, which sheds stereotypes and at the same time lets the black man be celebrated and loved.
Jenkin’s ‘Moonlight’ won the Oscar for Best Picture, while also being the one of the lowest budget indie films to ever win in the category, it’s not surprising given the theme, acting and outstanding cinematography. Although the film may have been robbed of its spotlight at the Oscars due to a certain faux pas, it will remain a memorable fixture as a personalised time capsule for the black community. A film that has authentically shown the intricacy of blackness, a film that has started a conversation and a film that made us as a society question the stereotype of the black man. ‘Moonlight’ in all it’s beauty, is an ode to all the black boys and black men navigating life, it speaks to them all poetically. It’s a signal for them to shine their light until its almost blinding.
#Blackboyjoy is here to stay and it’s stronger than ever.
‘Moonlight’ is open nationwide in the UK and playing in 305 cinemas .