Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2016 4:53 pm 
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Blackness and gayness

In Moonlight, a movie set in south Florida, Barry Jenkins has made a humdinger of a sophomore feature eight years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy. The latter, very ruminative, urban, and middle class black, was surprisingly original and intelligent, though I quoted Karina Longworth's comment: "Medicine for Melancholy offers a self-contained rebuttal to claims that precious, naturalistic dramas about the existential dilemmas of hipster singles are exclusively a white man’s game." It takes place in San Francisco, by the way. Well, forget all that. Moonlight is visceral and intense and very black. It shows a boy who grows up in the depths of the ghetto with a crack whore mamma and a drug dealer de facto foster daddy, and can still be gay. Maybe everybody knows this, but it's new to the screen, and with this film Barry Jenkins level of accomplishment has made a great leap forward. Moonlight is a deeply original and memorable black gay coming-of-age story.

But it's more complicated than that, because Moonlight focuses on three different intense periods of the young man's life, and he's three distinctly different people (and three different actors). First he's shy, silent ten-year-old "Little." At the next stage he's intense, angry high schooler Chiron. Finally after prison time he's a big muscular brute called Black. He had all these names as a boy but he grows into each of them and each stands for the different person he's become - while he's also all these and other people. He does not know who he is, but whatever he is, is intense.

It's hard to overstate the passion and accomplishment behind the scenes that unfold in this picture, which sometimes feel hurled at you, or hurled across the screen. The language makes no concessions to cliché or to what white people may expect to hear. Some dialogue at least in the third episode is hard to follow and may require repeated viewings.

The story of Moonlight takes place over the course of fifteen years or so, and is based on the playwright and fellow Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney's short theater piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” There is a poetry and an unmistakably earnest epic quality in the film, with its classical music and James Laxton's elegant Steadicam cinematography which gives even violent, precipitous action a studied look. Rapid camera moves, rapturous moments, bright color, intense pop songs show a clear debt to Wong Kar-wai.* Jenkins and his crew do beautiful things with big old cars, the glint of metal, and water: a great scene is the one in which the boy takes a luxurious ghetto bath using dishwashing liquid and a big tub of boiled water. Camerawork is panoramic, adding sweep to the boy's confinement.

Each manifestation of Little-Chiron-Black also makes no concession to good looks or gay sensitivity, though the small runt of a boy (played by Alex Hibbert with silent composure) and the two other iterations each has an intense, palpable beauty in his blackness that mocks the conventions of commercials and TV casting. Right from the start other boys mark the boy as "soft" and he's chased into a crack house, rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the mentor-to-be who takes him back to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) to get him to talk and becomes his protector. The time will come when he asks Juan what "faggot" means; he gets a kindly, tolerant answer. What the boy has to contend with all the time besides the bullies is his mamma, who keeps descending into drug dependency and scrounging for money, so as a tall, skinny teenager played by Ashton Sanders he tells Juan he "hates" her.

The one he will love-hate is his continuing "friend" Kevin (Jaden Piner at 9; Jharrel Jerome at the crucial moment of 16; André Holland as the adult Black seeks out a decade or more later). These are the moments that are the emotional heart of the film and of Little-Chiron-Black's experience, and though it's not that kind of story or relationship there's the same kind of heartbreaking longing hovering over Kevin as in Brokeback Mountain. Moonlight is another gay tragic epic love story that has the possibility of making its way to a mainstream audience and perhaps even into their hearts, but this time with the addition of blackness. As embodied by Jharrel Jerome, the high school Kevin who is Chiron's only friend and only betrayer, is a weak young man; he will admit to that weakness, to only doing what other people wanted him to do, as a grown man and a cook. But he has one important thing: the ability to reach out and touch Chiron, which makes all the difference. Jerome's weakness is heartbreaking; when he returns as André Holland, he's an eager charmer. His weakness now impresses, and his chattiness may need Black's (like Chiron's, and LIttle's) silence, which may be wounded but is also strong. One of the beautiful moments is when Juan teaches Little to swim; this is a time when we can see his strength, also when the 9-year-old Kevin teaches him to fight back.

When Chiron has returned as Black, and is played by Trevante Rhodes, he's an astonishment. The audience has to accept the transformation isn't what you'd expect, as must Kevin. This final sequence makes sense if you conceive of it as growing from a Brokeback kind of longing and loneliness, and in those terms, it's beautiful, strengthened by the intense presence Trevante Rhodes provides. It's an intensity of blackness, which Jenkins revels in, and Moonlight yields its remarkable pleasures only if we revel in it too. In which case it becomes one of the year's best films.

Moonlight, 110 mins., debuted at Telluride, Sept. 2016; also at Toronto, Edmunton, New York, London, Vancouver, Hamptons, Mill Valley, Rome, Philadelphia, Chicago in close succession, US theatrical realese 21 Oct. 2016.
* See Laura Blum's Thalo interview with the production diesigner, Hannah Beachler.

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