My Name is Chiron
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Hollywood has deservedly garnered a plethora of flack for not having enough stories about minorities and women. The word “diversity” has become a buzzword in recent years, except the unfortunate reality is that the word itself has become more of a flash point for discussion than what it actually represents. Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures, The Handmaiden, and Moana give this year a sense of marginal improvement over the past two years that were dominated by the #OscarsSoWhite catastrophe. The nominations potentials, however, don’t necessarily prove that somehow diversity has been achieved. Jimmy Kimmel’s Emmy joke about how Hollywood likes to congratulate itself on diversity over actually achieving it lands so strongly because of how true that is in practice. In regard to black actors and narratives specifically, there has been a troubling trend of Hollywood lauding films about slavery in order to make up for the institutionalized racism in its bones (think of the laudatory headlines celebrating the Academy for honoring Steve McQueen’s somber 12 Years a Slave, which deserved its prizes but didn’t in any sense “break the ceiling”). Slavery is a horror of the American state that has never been truly addressed and it is now more important than ever before to understand that it was a foundational brick of this country and not just a shameful happenstance that we have in any way rectified (more films on how the South replaced slavery with institutionalized racism to keep its economic system afloat, for example, would be critical to rounding out the effects of that inhumane paradigm). It is not, however, the encompassing story of what it means to black in America. Stories about black Americans outside of that construct are vital to depicting the real lives they lead, lives that are almost never given the chance to make it to the screen. Moonlight is one of those stories, structured as the triptych in the life of a man who was an outsider in more ways than one.
The story of Moonlight is based on playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s critically acclaimed play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a semi-autobiographical account of the playwright’s search for an identity as a queer black man in Miami at the height of the War on Drugs. Moonlight is not a film that is particularly concerned with making notable or profound statements on race, sexuality, and the War on Drugs that was a thinly disguised effort to further criminalize black Americans. Those contexts are all there in significant enough fashions because they simply have to be there for the story to carry an authentic weight, but Barry Jenkins’s screenplay isn’t particularly concerned with grand statements. His screenplay, broken into three distinct segments, is more interested in how the lives of the characters within in are shaped by their circumstances, their acts, and their emotions. The resulting film doesn’t completely coalesce as a screenplay but it also doesn’t need to particularly follow a traditional format, either. A triptych film’s greatest weakness often is that each segment is unable to completely stand on its own as an organic film and that the whole has to be taken into account for each individual piece to carry more weight. In Moonlight, the arc of Chiron’s life as a whole garners a considerable emotional understanding from the film, but critically, each segment depicting his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood respectively is able to do that on its own as well. That ability to string together a cohesive story in three distinct thirty minute segments with largely new casts without losing that emotional tenacity is stunningly difficult to achieve and that makes the film overall that much more admirable.
The power of Moonlight rests upon its ability to delve into the emotional turmoil of Chiron’s life and it does that in spades. This genuinely emotional, understanding portrait speaks powerfully but largely always in an understated tone. That tone allows for the more explosive moments to really land but more critically, it avoids any sense that Moonlight is simply trying to play on the audience’s emotional feedback without earning it. It earns all of it in part due to its universality for a story that is often largely reserved space for white, middle-aged straight men (think of your typical Harvey Weinstein Oscar bait films). There’s a heartbreaking moment when a child Chiron (a fantastic Alex Hibbert) asks a man who becomes a sort of father figure to him about what the f word means (it’s not “fuck”). It’s a word that hurts him, wounds him, and it is inherently tied to how often he’s constantly pushed around and bullied for existing as who he is. But Chiron doesn’t know what that word really is and why it hurts him in the way it does. There’s a knowing series of glances that go between the three individuals sitting at the table (especially between the two adults) and instead of going for the grander, more dramatic moment, Jenkins chooses to have a quiet one instead. Juan (a terrific Mahershala Ali) notes quietly that the word is one that is used to define gay people but it’s a term that shouldn’t be used because it’s wrong to do so. Chiron nods with a quiet understanding and the camera captures each subtle change with powerful close-ups that seem to be going through everyone’s minds, close-ups that at times throughout the film feel as if the audience is privy to an intense intimacy that feels as if ought to be off-limits. There’s a powerful torrent of emotion in that one sequence and it is arguably a microcosm of Moonlight as a whole.
Moonlight is stunningly shot, its most striking compositions trembling with the string instrumentation whose rises and falls make it feel as if it is coming alive as an active metaphor for the emotional crescendo facing its characters. The chords of the cello strike the body and mind as the camera rolls into Chiron’s eyes, exploring the depth of his turmoil, isolation, and the search for some semblance of love and acceptance. Chiron at a certain age understands that he’s gay but he’s not even necessarily looking for someone to accept him specifically for that. He’s simply looking for someone to simply love him in a way that people want to be loved. The toxic aspect of masculinity that is so repugnantly prevalent in society is notable here as well, as Chiron struggles against that construct in order to just be himself. Chiron’s journey succeeding on the screen is in good chunk due to the three actors who play him in the stages of Little, Chiron, and Black (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhoades, respectively). All three channeled Chiron’s journey perfectly and that they filmed those parts independently of each other makes that acting feat all the more impressive. André Holland leaves The Knick momentarily to steal the third act effortlessly. The aforementioned Mahershala Ali is terrific as a man who is trying to see a child grow a better future but is unable to completely come to terms with the life choices he’s made. Janelle Monáe as Chiron’s true mother figure elevates a small role into something much more. Naomie Harris as Chiron’s birth mother takes a figure who could be easily reviled and gives her a lot more sympathy and understanding than one would expect. Barry Jenkins has created a phenomenon in Moonlight and one hopes that it inspires more films centered on people and their emotional connections in communities and contexts who rarely get the attention that they deserve and the space to tell their own stories.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Produced by: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Screenplay by: Barry Jenkins
Story by: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Music by: Nicholas Britell
Cinematography by: James Laxton
Edited by: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
Production Company(s): A24, Plan B Entertainment, Pastel Productions
Distributed by: A24
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Dates: September 2, 2016 (Telluride), October 21, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: BS Reviews