I know a musician who grew up on a Chicago housing project during the Reagan era. He watched as most of his contemporaries were lost to gang culture, resulting in the inevitable end game of either death or incarceration. As a sensitive and artistic young black man, two of his role models were Bowie and Prince, musicians whose sensuous androgyny provided an alternative to the pressurised black culture of hyper masculinity. I have no idea what kinds of tribulations he faced surviving his environment but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find him strongly identifying with Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron.
Whilst the binary politics centered around race and gender rages on, Moonlight is a quietly powerful statement simply because it avoids making any overt messages, a social realist film that doesn’t stamp its foot or wag its pious finger. Jenkins eschews faux documentary style and there is none of the super 8 style grittiness so closely associated with independent film. Instead, Moonlight dares to be as cinematic as possible: the three different film stocks of Fuji, Kodak and Agfa were digitally simulated in a kind of respective triumvirate resurrection of ghostly nostalgia, representing each successive chapter in Chiron’s life. There are anamorphic wide screen vistas where the Miami sun shines down on crackheads, housing projects, beaches and schools, all in the saturated tropical colours and lustrous skin tones of a waking nightmare. Jenkins’ film literacy in World Cinema takes the film on a divergent path from American tropes, with references and hommages to Wong Kar Wai aplenty. Jenkins doesn’t just forsake the white hegemony of Speilbergian commercialism, there aren’t any traces of John Singleton or Spike Lee either; the framing, minimalism and meditative stillnesses are instead those of european art house cinema. It came as no surprise to learn that his biggest influence is Claire Denis and Moonlight certainly has all the space and light of something like Beau Travail, another film about masculinity under a beating sun. It’s as though a Parisian film crew had breezed into town and set up shop, having never seen an episode of Miami Vice. Equally, the soundtrack is as imaginative and eclectic and in interviews Jenkins seems to possess all the musical sensibilities of a true crate digger. There is an original chamber orchestral score, finding the perfect collaborator in the composer Nicolas Britell, 70s blaxploitation and hip hop, with everything being put through a remixing technique known as Chopped and Screwed, a kind of Pimp My Ride custom shop for music that slows down and skips beats, manipulating and sculpting the music to fit the mood of the scene.
Refreshingly, there is no clear delination between good and bad: drug dealers have back stories, they can be as mercantile as any hedge funder, yet they take the time to mentor like new age youth councilors. The moral conundrum of selling crack cocaine to a boy’s mother and then giving him swimming lessons is an outright subversion of every portrayal of the black street corner dealer. As a young boy Chiron learns to let go and trust the freedom of the ocean and then later has his first sexual awakening on its sands with another youth. The freedom of nature versus the constraints of society are warring themes. Chiron eventually winds up another version of his mentor, inheriting his throne and literally his crown. In overcoming his childhood persecutors he chooses violence, a path that leads to juvenal hall and a system that spits him out as a muscular and hardened criminal with all sense of vulnerability masked by a streetwise wariness and sense of latent danger. The truer self, — one of sensitive introspection and curiosity — is conveyed in the eyes of all three actors. Chiron becomes the stereotypical version of manhood that ghetto culture narrows him down to, something that ultimately he isn’t. He masquerades as the alpha male and the strong silent type because that is what society and racial profiling expect from him. Naomi Harris is the Brit who turns in a star performance as the mother, a transformation from a ‘Posh English girl’ (Jenkin’s description of her) to a Miami drug addict having a complex relationship with her son. It’s incredible to think she knocked this out in just over a few days during some down time for the press junket for Spectre.
Barry Jenkins has neither the provocation of Spike Lee, nor the bleeding heart of Ken Loach. He marries personal experience with erudite film literacy under the umbrella of social realism and the result is artistic, complex and immediate. There is no sense of unique black perspective, Moonlight‘s themes are universal to the human condition. Not everyone is convinced, though: The Times‘ Camilla Long has had the liberal lynch mob baying for blood, predictably calling her out on her perceived racism for criticising the film. Apparently as a straight, white, middle class woman, she found it hard to relate to. By that rationale maybe she isn’t fit to review anything but Downtown Abbey and The Crown. I have no interest in Rugby and I’ve never been a Yorkshire coal miner but that’s never stopped me from appreciating This Sporting Life as a great film. Jenkins is a huge fan of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. What on earth did a young black film student from Miami see in the lives of working class Glaswegians that he found so interesting? I bet he needed subtitles as much as he does for those Criterion Wong Kar Wai films though.