Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brief thoughts on Moonlight.

They say that the hardest person to truly accept you, to look past all of your imperfections and see the valuable person underneath, is yourself. That sense of identity and self-worth can often eat away at us, filling us with intense personal scrutiny, in many ways defining the term "my own worst enemy". That's a trait that director Barry Jenkins observes with one of the most celebrated movies of the year, Moonlight, a quietly affecting and introspective piece of filmmaking of analyzing, and deconstructing stereotypes to get to the true core of its characters.

Sharing in a similar style of storytelling to Boyhood, the film is split into three distinct chapters following the maturation of Chiron, as he goes from boy to man. His is an odyssey centered squarely around identity, growing up within a broken household, being terrorized by schoolyard bullies, and also struggling to come to grips with his own blooming sexuality, and his eventual attraction to men. I'm sure many of us have thought that we were born into the wrong environment alongside the wrong people at least several times in our lives, a trait we can instantly relate to Chiron with, himself becoming a frequent target of scrutiny in a past he would largely rather forget, only further hindering his own development, and denying himself a sense of happiness he deserves.

In the past, the "gay black man" has become a vicious stereotype in media used mainly for cheap and dishonest laughs, but it's not the only one, as further offensive traits like crackheads and bullies have formed into mean-spirited tools for drama's sake. In many ways, Barry Jenkins uses those pre-conceived notions in order to challenge those stereotypes. While in any other filmmaker's hands this may have threatened to perpetuate what Jenkins is working against, the screenplay that he wrote with Tarrel Alvin McCraney (from his unpublished play "In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue") deconstructs all of those superficial archetypes to present figures of greater sensitivity and realism. We can't help what kind of culture we grow up in, our how our own personalities differ from those around us, and Jenkins comes to represent this through ideas of identity greater than black and white, gay or straight, but a universal message of personal acceptance and self-worth to achieve happiness, even if it may seem easier to ignore these things and adapt to fit in with that society around us.

It's those different figures that Chiron meets, themselves breaking apart their pre-conceived stereotypes, who will be the most vital in shaping him. Prominent figures include close childhood friend Kevin who helps him experience first love before veering into a different wavelength, as well as his scornful and utterly broken mother (played by a fantastic Naomie Harris) whose love is muted in her blind anger and addiction (Chiron instead gravitates more towards Janelle Monae's Teresa). But the most vital is Mahershala Ali's Juan, the closest thing that Chiron gets to a father figure, himself burdened by his own vices as a crack-dealer, but who leaves a great sense of impression and growth on him, leaving a long lasting impact long after his exit after the first-third.

The result is an unassuming, but deeply moving coming of age work of art that not only should be seen, but demands to be.

***** / *****

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