MOONLIGHT still, Barry Jenkins

MOONLIGHT: Extraordinary Filmmaking and Minimalist Storytelling

It has been over four years since Barry Jenkin’s MOONLIGHT (2016) first entered cinemas to rave reviews from both critics and audiences alike, not to mention three years since the film won three separate awards at the 2017 Oscars. But now, as 2020 draws to a close, how does the film hold-up four years later? And is it still as emotionally impactful and visually engaging as most critics claimed it was?

Directed by Barry Jenkins (MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008), IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, (2018)) and based on the unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. MOONLIGHT is another film from adored production company A24, who also brought-us modern indie classics like HEREDITARY (2018), THE WITCH (2015) and A GHOST STORY (2017). Although MOONLIGHT hasn’t been praised by all since its initial release, with some seeing the film as nothing more than your average drama, it is certainly one of the finest and most underappreciated examples of visual storytelling and subtle characterisation in recent memory.

The film follows the life of one man, Chiron, who through three different time-periods – young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult- grapples with his identity and sexuality as he grows-up in Miami. His journey to manhood being guided by the kindness, support and love of the community that help raise him.

In addition to receiving almost universally positive reviews, MOONLIGHT would go on to win three Oscars in 2017 including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. And with the film only having a budget of around $4 million, MOONLIGHT has the lowest budget of any Best Picture winner since ROCKY in 1976, which cost approximately $960,000. However, even with this small-budget, director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney always had a clear vision as to what the film would be. As both men grew-up in the same Liberty City neighborhood of Miami with mothers who had both struggled with drug addiction, with roughly 80% of the film being shot in these same locations. And while initially, the production was apprehensive about safety issues when it came to filming, once word got out that Jenkins was originally from the neighborhood, everything changed for the better as locals couldn’t have been more welcoming and cooperative.

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray Chiron across the three different time-periods of his life, and all do a great job in spite of them not sharing many of the same mannerisms outside of Chiron’s general manner of speaking, yet this doesn’t stop the trio from still making Chiron’s quiet and sheepish personality shine through his various interactions with other characters. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe and André Holland are all also fantastic, even if their characters aren’t featured predominately throughout the narrative.

Despite a large amount of James Laxton’s cinematography consisting of chaotic hand-held shots, the film’s revolving camerawork does allow for plenty of movement, as the camera never remains still during conversations between characters, making many of the story’s dramatic moments far more visually interesting and giving each scene a consistent flow. Additionally, the film also utilizes its cinematography to reflect Chiron’s emotional state in a couple of scenes, combing with the film’s original score for some very impactful story-beats. All of this working in-synch with the film’s bright color palette and occasionally heavy blue/purple lighting, which effectively play into the tropical setting of Miami and title of the film respectively. Jenkins’ even uses the film’s cinematography to place audiences directly in the middle of the story, placing the camera in between characters rather than on the far side of the room, full immersing its viewer(s) into Chiron’s world.

Another wonderful element of the film is the original score by Nicholas Britell, which is certainly unique, as MOONLIGHT has a very diverse yet gentle score with tracks ranging from orchestral to more piano-focused. As Britell decided early on to “Chop and Screw” the orchestra to create a new kind of sound, this technique can be seen throughout the tracks: The Middle of the World, Chiron’s Theme and Chef’s Special, with director Barry Jenkins stating he always wanted the film’s score to be distinctive, as he actively tried to avoid the cliché of previous black-lead films featuring exclusively hip-hop soundtracks. Furthermore, the film often implements classic slow-paced jazz songs into the story to help sets its tone, which only further emphasises the film’s calming soundscape.

Much of MOONLIGHT’s story was also inspired by Jenkins’ own childhood in Miami, where he was surrounded by lush green grass, tall palm trees and stunning golden sunsets, yet also lived in a neighborhood where some tragic events took-place, declaring his childhood “A Beautiful Struggle”. And whilst the film’s slow-pacing allows Jenkins’ story and its fictional characters to be fully explored, this shouldn’t turn any viewers off, as the story doesn’t move along at a brutally slow-pace, only slow enough to fully submerge its story/characters in realism. Then of course, there is the film’s visual storytelling, which is some of the best-executed in cinema in quite some time. As the film hides many small visual/audio details for those paying close attention, alongside presenting its signature themes of embracing yourself, addiction and masculinity with pride. So much so, that viewers could interpret the film in a number of ways, but front and foremost, it seems the film is about how society’s expectations of masculinity can leave some feeling trapped, unsure of their own personality as it conflicts with what society commonly expects, obviously relating to Chiron’s sexuality in this case.

Overall, MOONLIGHT not only stands the test of time as of yet, but is unquestionably a prepossessing coming-of-age story even if it may not be in the top-tier of A24 films for most, as while the film is definitely an entertaining and well-written drama with an equally well-crafted original score and some very creative cinematography. MOONLIGHT, just like the rest of Barry Jenkins’ filmography, may not appeal to every viewer as a result of its heavy use of symbolism and mostly minimalistic storytelling. But for those who MOONLIGHT does appeal to, it truly flourishes as a low-budget film, and is sure to be a captivating watch followed by a fascinating discussion.

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