For decades (even centuries) now one of the defining characteristics of the United States of America as a country has been its state of race relations. The relationship between black America and white America has been so turbulent that it comes off as such a striking irregularity with the rest of the world. This topic has been even more at the forefront recently with the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of a president who has never had the best intentions for minorities in mind. So now is the perfect time for a movie such as Moonlight to hit the zeitgeist. American cinema almost never allows the space for films from an African American perspective. The two exceptions are independent films (and I’m talking about the ones that are truly independent films and not ones that are able to get Hollywood actors and call themselves independent) and films where the “main” character is black but the hero is a white character (and therefore not really from an African American perspective). Moonlight, in fact, is very much one of the former films, but being released at the perfect time and having a ton of Oscar buzz may allow this film to be remembered in film history in a way that most independent films never will be able to. That is great for a film that so authentically portrays the black experience but still conveys universal emotions that anyone of any culture or race should be able to connect to.
That being said, Moonlight, has a very dark and depressing theme at its core. Moonlight follows a boy named Chiron (played by multiple actors and most effectively so by Trevante Rhodes in the adult incarnation of the character) as he is raised by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris). Chiron is quiet but very smart and quickly realizes that he is gay. The rest of the film follows him as he ages and struggles to find a way to live in a very tough neighborhood while being gay. Unfortunately for Chiron, his life does not go so well and this film becomes a striking tale of missed opportunities and the dangers of being lured in by societal norms. On one hand this allows the film to deliver a lesson to white audiences on why African American society is so different without being condescending. On the other hand this also causes the film to deliver an ending with a theme so powerful and so personal it’s hard not to get depressed by this ending. This is not an easy sit.
The film itself is divided into three chapters. This storytelling technique for the most part works. All three chapters serve as individual films with a beginning, middle, and end in each. It also allows the first and last act to deliver some truly powerful moments. However, the middle chapter feels a bit stilted thanks to the format as it does spend some time setting up the final act (Yes, it still can ultimately function as its own story though). The middle chapter also suffers from a lack of memorable performances (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae steal the show in the first chapter entitled “i. Little” and Trevante Rhose is really impressive in his breakthrough role in “iii. Black”).
Ultimately, Moonlight is a powerful bit of filmmaking that does suffer a bit from being too powerful. It’s an essential bit of filmmaking that I just don’t see myself revisiting too often in the future.