A lot of people remember Moonlight best as the movie that surprisingly won the Best Picture Oscar for 2016, in the famous mix-up that followed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway accidentally anointing La La Land as the winner. But Moonlight deserves much better than that; it’s a particularly unique Best Picture winner, and an amazing film in its own right.
Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was both the first LGBTQ-themed film (and the first with an all-Black cast) to win Best Picture. It also helped put A24 on the map, while also cementing Jenkins as one of the leading active filmmakers. And it got that win despite a lack of what was then considered A-List talent.
For all of the stupid discourse about movies that “could never be made today,”Moonlight is a movie that probably could never have been made earlier than 2016.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie, photographed by James Laxton and scored by Nicholas Britell, who Jenkins would bring along with him on his subsequent projects If Beale Street Could Talk and the Amazon adaptation of The Underground Railroad. The performances, many of them from actors who have since become on-screen mainstays, are uniformly excellent.
More than anything else, Moonlight tells the type of story that movies that compete for, and win Oscars, very rarely tell.
The film tells three movements from the story of a young Black gay man named Chiron, who is known as “Little” when he’s a young kid and as “Black” as an adult. One could easily imagine a longer story, telling more of his life, but these three parts are pivotal, all with important things to say about sexuality, poverty, and masculinity. There’s a lot going on below the surface here, much of it related to masculinity and how it is performed.
Chiron is introduced as a kid in Miami’s Liberty City section, raised by a crack-addicted single mom (Naomie Harris). Hiding out from bullies, he’s taken in by Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for the movie), a sensitive drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) show him the sort of affection he’d long been missing.
In the second act, Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) is a teenager, who first has a romantic moment with longtime friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), until that ends in a heartbreaking fashion. In the third act Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has refashioned himself after Juan, sporting muscle and working as a drug dealer, and he has a reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland), in which they try to come to terms with the past.
Moonlight and La La Land will likely always be linked in the popular imagination, and while I remember preferring La La Land at the time, there’s no question that Moonlight has endured much more in the five years since.
Moonlight is streaming on Showtime, and also on Kanopy.