Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)


On second viewing, I confirmed that Moonlight is truly a contemporary masterpiece, and currently the best film I’ve seen in 2016. My truncated review of past explained my primary observation: that the camera searches for and amplifies the quiet peace found in fleeting moments of connection with others. Herein, I wish to elaborate.

Though presented as a conventionally structured coming of age drama with three distinct chapters, Moonlight is far from a generic growing up story. Surely its structure is part of the mold, but the film stretches so far beyond the mold—through profound subtext, through subtle gestures, through inspired camera movement, through resonating visual and musical motifs—that it becomes difficult to capture in words how exactly it operates, and any attempt to describe Moonlight’s intricacies would be a disservice to the film as a whole. But, alas, I will attempt to form a tapestry of highlights by describing some of its details.

The “quiet peace” I name is summed in the film by Kevin’s speech to Chiron on the beach, just before they kiss. He says that he loves the cool breeze, it brings a peace. “it feels so good”, he states. Kevin’s not merely talking about the literal breeze of cool air but about a certain state of feeling, a feeling of peace, the kind of peace that can be found in that moment just before a kiss, or while letting go holding hands. That peace is a fleeting feeling of love and connection with another person, and the cool breeze is a physical reminder of that peace because it brings out a similar moment of stasis, of pleasure, of feeling connected. That beach, where Chiron learned from Juan how  to swim and where Kevin opened his heart and touched him, would remain special to him. These are few of the moments of real human connection which he would nostalgically consider when plunging his face in a sink full of ice or when peeking his head in the freezer.

This conveyance of fleeting human connection is the key theme of the film, and Kevin’s speech is the key scene. The cinematography follows in such a way to support this theme. Throughout the film, which is made up almost entirely of dialogues, there is no shot-reverse-shot editing. In most frames, the handheld camera slowly moves from one character’s face to the other then back again. Each time the camera transitions between characters it forms an invisible line connecting the characters in the world in which they coexist. The camera thus serves to make equal and make connected their conversations. This is especially noticeable during the conversations between Chiron and Juan in the first part, and Chiron and Kevan in the following two. Often times when the camera glides between these two characters it nearly halts between them, as if searching for that peace, that euphemistic cool breeze, that connection between them. The characters almost appear as if in slow motion, such as when Chiron shakes Kevin’s hand after getting dropped off or when Kevin wipes his hand in the sand: their hands and the camera linger for a moment of quiet peace.

This languid rhythm coupled with moon lit night scenes and a strikingly cool blue colour pallette work together in forming an indelible mise-en-scene, one which conveys a great sense of sincerity and contemplation. What it contemplates; however, is not always readily obvious. While critics have been quick to reveal Jenkins intentions of exposing African-American masculinity and the further complexities of growing up a homosexual black male from a rough neighbourhood, Moonlight is truly about much more than mere portrayal. Being black and homosexual feeds into its plot, but what makes the film so strikingly relatable is how subtle these stereotypes are played. Viewers can see that Chiron is black, but this is never part of the conversation within the film, and neither is his sexual orientation. Besides one brilliant scene wherein Chiron asks Juan ‘what’s a faggot’, to which Juan compassionately responds that ‘you can be gay, it’s alright, but no one can call you faggot’, there is no need for pedantic #blacklivesmatter or #homosexuallivesmatter conversation.

Moonlight is one of few films which has done ‘black films’ and ‘queer films’ right, and it did so by removing the stigma while still acknowledging its existence.

What’s more powerful is the film’s love story. As children, Chiron and Kevin are seen play-fighting. Kevin tells him, “I knew you weren’t soft, Little”, and they run away together. Their fight, which is shot with somewhat erotic tones, is perhaps the first time Chiron felt that he might be gay. In wrestling with Kevin, he felt his body; he later asks Juan “am I a faggot’. Surely this is because others have been insulting him, but surely too it is because he feels something inside of him. When they’re in high school, Chiron gets his chance with Kevin, and when they grow up he’s still with him in mind and later in flesh.

The shot immediately before the surreal finale of Little on the beach is one of Kevin holding Chiron’s head on his own shoulder. It is an exact mirror image of the shot in Chapter 2 when Kevin holds Chiron’s head after fondling him. The visual rhyming between the three chapters, from wrestling to fondling to holding one another are mere instances of a love which, to Chiron, a young black man from Miami, is forbidden. And so he lives a life where he rejects these thoughts. They remain behind closed doors and at the beach, and he takes advice from Juan in “choosing [his] own life”. He wears fronts because he is a front. Black is not Chiron; Chiron is Chiron. Kevin sees this now; he spawned the nickname ‘Black’ which Chiron adopted into his trapping lifestyle, but ironically it is Kevin as an adult who is able to give him his name back. He calls him Chiron; he sees him how he is. Together with Kevin, Chiron can take down the fronts.

96/100 – Masterful

5 Stars


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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2 Responses to Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)

  1. Rachel says:

    I love what you wrote about “quiet peace”, you did an amazing job describing why this film is also my favorite of the year. Even though people would call it a black queer film, Jenkins doesn’t make Moonlight about those subjects, he just makes a film about a man. Great post!

  2. Pingback: Best of 2016 | Aesthetics Of The Mind

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