Watching Barry Jenkins’s new feature film Moonlight is like being present at the very creation of the film – not just watching the scenes and performances being captured on camera, but witnessing the conception of it inside the director’s mind. He has filmed and presented it with such spontaneity, and with so thorough a transference of deep subjectivity, that, as François Truffaut once wrote of the films of Renoir, I had to watch it in a theatre a second time just to see if it would turn out the same way. Each shot we see is not merely the canny illustration of burning experiences being depicted and fierce emotions being expressed, but is itself the very expression of them, wrenched from the director’s mind, and arising naturally and spontaneously out of the situation of it being filmed and edited.
Take, for example, the scene playing about halfway through the middle of the film’s three chapters, in which the mother of the main character, Chiron, played by the remarkable British actor Naomie Harris, anxiously greets her son when he gets home one afternoon, and asks him for money (the implication is clear that it’s for more drugs, to feed her addiction). Jenkins has made clear in a large number of interviews and press statements that Harris’s character, Paula, as written by him and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and as filmed by him, is based in large part on his own mother. Her scenes in the film play with an especial and tremulous immediacy, and this particular one stands out for a peculiar visual invention as well – Jenkins, in the moment of filming the actor’s performance, got her to play it looking straight into the lens, and shot it at the higher rate of 48 frames per second. (Almost all video you see is shot at 24 frames a second; the heightened speed is a new industrial technological advance, notably used to shoot Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.) The result has the effect of an unnerving and rare proximity to the figure onscreen, intensifying her essence while simultaneously rendering it more opaque. Indeed, throughout the film, Harris’s performance is perhaps the most intricate (while Janelle Monáe takes the crown for distinctiveness, Trevante Rhodes for tender sensitivity, and Mahershala Ali for grandeur).
So many people and publications on the planet have by now published some kind of comment on or reaction to Moonlight that I’m sure any readers who are interested in it have already read everything there is to about the construction of the plot and the source of the story, indeed, have probably already seen the film at least once. (Among South African reviewers, you can click here to read Charl Blignaut’s excellent review in the City Press, here to read Theolin Tembo’s review for the Tonight, here for Tymon Smith’s review in the Sunday Times, here for Zandile Kunene’s piece in the Mail & Guardian, here for Emmanuel Tjiya’s review in the Sowetan, here for Alex Isaacs’s review on the Channel24 website, here for Gabi Zietsman’s review on her blog, and here for fellow Huffington Post blogger Zanta Nkumane’s post on that website’s blog.) After a number of viewings, I’m still mightily impressed by the superb intelligence of Jenkins and McCraney’s screenplay, which, though adapted from a play, is so obviously written with the visual expression of the story in mind that the text, when filmed, was immediately transmuted into image. Unlike a few other films of recent years that met with as much hype and acclaim as Moonlight has, and which cast distasteful aspersions on the artifices of the cinema in favour of an ostensibly loftier, more literary inclination (I’m thinking primarily, of course, of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman), Jenkins’s film virtually takes those artifices as its subject; he has sought (successfully) to express the searing inner experiences of Chiron through physical means, and his brazen daring has resulted in work of a shuddering beauty and potency.
That screenplay doesn’t really set out the trappings of a plot so much as erect a framework on which Jenkins can hang his cinematic portraits of three distinct moments in Chiron’s young life. It establishes the action within a tangible context (presumably inspired by Jenkins and McCraney’s real-life circumstances) and, through the shrewd insertions of detail, constructs a small handful of pointers from which a viewer could extrapolate the outer bounds of the story. But it’s remarkably elliptical, in that hardly any material information is given on any character’s life and what has taken place or will take place in it before the chapter begins and after it ends. A vast accumulation of biographical-like particulars is left out of the script and of the movie, and, through the director’s mercurial pointers and the alluring opacity of the performances, viewers are given free reign in which we may imagine characters’ backstories, the unspoken implications of what’s being said and done, the ripples of each action beyond the edges of the scenes, and the direction in which tangents and offshoots may run after each chapter closes. It’s an imaginative freedom granted by and equivalent to the great and singular autonomy of Jenkins’s artistry. Considering this, after about the second time I saw Moonlight, I was reminded of two more of my favourite films: One is Judd Apatow’s astonishingly personal This is Forty, from 2012, which gave the actors large leeway in their scenes to improvise and plumb their imaginative depths for wild personal expression; Apatow also inspired us viewers to imagine for ourselves the earlier and outer contours of the characters’ lives, which enriched the tender images he wrought of their current moments. The other is Terrence Malick’s painfully beautiful and wondrously inventive To the Wonder, from 2013; like it, Moonlight doesn’t provide particular details of its character’s lives such as what books they read, what they like to watch, what they talk about with each other and with other people on a day-to-day basis, how insular or open their communities are, how they go about various routine social interactions, how and what they eat, where they are, or when and where they’re going. Jenkins doesn’t need to provide those details, because he pinpoints specific, individual details from within the deep recesses of Chiron’s inner life and amplifies them with a resounding resonance. There is no extraneous matter in the script, and no unnecessary shots; not a single frame is projected onto the screen for dry informative purposes, but carries and imparts essential meaning.
Though it may be difficult for some to imagine, when there’s so much praise surrounding the film, there have been critics and reviewers who do not share in the general enthusiasm for Moonlight. I’ve heard accusations of it playing on stereotypes of the victimhood of the intersecting identities of being black and queer. Acknowledging that I speak from the slightly detached viewpoint of a son of the white petite bourgeoisie, I answer that charge by rejecting it, asserting that Moonlight’s subject is not actually the gay black male experience – just as a similarly singular movie from two years earlier, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, was not about the straight white male experience; it’s about the experience of the individual Chiron, who happens to be black and who falls in love with another boy. If the film had been about any other black gay male – for instance, Kevin, the object of Chiron’s interest – it would be an entirely different work. Jenkins’s film is in direct contrast to other recent films, such as the excellent Creed, from 2015, by Ryan Coogler, which called poignantly to mind all the young black individuals who weren’t blessed with Adonis Creed’s good fortune.
Many more enthusiastic commentators have described Moonlight as a miracle, and, of course, it is – in the way that every great movie is a miracle. The phosphorescent synergy that comes about from the confluence of so many resources and efforts to deliver of work of such beauty is indeed a wonder, and the heights of sublimity that an artist like Jenkins can draw it to is an entirely miraculous phenomenon. But it’s a mistake to speak of the film as a miracle and pioneer in representation for its depictions of its particular intersecting identities, if only because it’d be lamentably unjust to the works that came before it and, for various unhappy reasons, were not as warmly welcomed by a moviegoing public or culture at large. In particular I’m thinking of the director Patrik-Ian Polk, unfairly ignored by the film industry and by audiences throughout his career, who has been telling the stories of black queer youths for over 15 years now; the torments that plague someone like Randy in Polk’s 2013 film Blackbird are of a far larger, cosmological import than the local though sweeping troubles of Chiron. Also, don’t forget that Hollywood told its first mainstream black queer love story over 30 years ago, in the much larger and probably equally momentous event of The Color Purple, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery as lovers in America’s Depression-era Deep South, painfully oppressed because of the particular cross-section of society in which they found themselves, with the luminescent performance of Oprah Winfrey bringing marvellous camp expression into the broad popular culture.
Neither Steven Spielberg nor Barry Jenkins is queer (so far as I know), and both produced these landmark films from material given to them by writers who are. But each manages to crack open that material, releasing the opportunities for them to tell stories from within themselves. Where Spielberg’s vision is much broader and more grandiose, abstracting a large social and political humanist worldview from a cast of dramatic figures in a folk-like mythology, Jenkins extracts the raw experiential ore of his own memories and finds astonishingly distinctive ways of shaping that raw material into a sublime artwork.
Considering the deep and almost definitely painful recesses of memory that Jenkins turned to for inspiration, and his method of filming scenes such as those with Naomie Harris that are obviously rooted in his past personal experiences, it seems to me that Jenkins has written, filmed, and edited Moonlight almost as if undergoing therapy, albeit subconsciously. Nobody can say whether he has brought about any helpful psychological advances for himself, and whether he has moved towards healing (in the latest interview I heard, his mother has not yet watched the film, knowing what she will be confronted with in it). He imbues the film with that same tremulousness, and so, as Terrence Malick did in his recent masterwork The Tree of Life, from 2011, evokes not only his memories but the very act of memory, and the feelings of wading back into one’s past. He has rendered that past immediately, electrifyingly present in his film, and it encourages me immensely as I anticipate the coming masterworks in his career. Hopefully there is now a new batch of young cinephiles, right below my own group in age, awakened by Moonlight to the cosmologically vast capacity and boundless possibilities of the cinema, just as I was by The Tree of Life. Besides its other gleaming and welcome contributions to the art form, that would be an enduring achievement for Moonlight.