With this week’s Toronto International Film Festival serving as the unofficial kickoff to awards season, issues of diversity will once again be on everyone’s mind. But here’s one thing that is often missed by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign: It’s not just that the Academy overlooks so many artists of color, but the prestige films that they do eventually, perhaps begrudgingly recognize are almost exclusively understood through the white experience.
It was only a few years ago that white savior movies like The Help and The Blind Side were the Academy’s idea of a good racial film. Even 12 Years a Slave, which was brutally honest about slavery, only understood blackness through suffering. The film shouldn’t be criticized for this–it’s historically accurate and still painfully relevant. But it’s about time the world gets to see a racial movie that is uninterested in whiteness at all.
Enter Moonlight. The intimate and majestic second feature by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) tells an intersectional tale of race and sexuality in an American South rarely depicted on film. But what distinguishes it from other prestige films–racial or otherwise–is that it doesn’t filter its moving story through its politics. Moonlight rejects the awards-season prerequisite of social context, instead choosing to tell its redemptive story of mothers, sons, friends, and lovers by immersing you in their inner worlds. It proves a uniquely captivating experience. Watching it among a rapturous crowd here in Toronto, I have rarely felt an audience so attuned to a film’s wavelength.
The coming-of-age story is told in three distinct parts, each covering a few days in the life of a boy named Chiron. With a drug-addict mother and absent father, Chiron is a child of the streets, but not hardened to its realities. He is bullied at each stage of his life, first by some troubled classmates and then eventually by himself. The other boys torment him but they don’t quite know why, and neither does he. Everyone can see there is something different about him. In the first section, he is befriend by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a benevolent drug dealer who provides him protection and acts as a surrogate father. But he can’t serve as the role model Chiron so desperately needs. The connections between Juan and the boy’s mother (a stellar Naomie Harris) run deep, and the first act builds to a climax of Shakespearean depth.
The next two sections of this emotional triptych revolve around Chiron’s high school relationship with another boy at school who is different in the same ways, although he hides it better. I can’t in good conscience spill the plot details of these sections, but they involve a touching act of love, a betraying moment of violence, and a redemption so subtle that it would be nearly invisible, if not for the careful groundwork Jenkins has laid. It’s an artistic achievement of the highest caliber, aided by revelatory performances from the cast.
Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult in the film’s final third, deserves special recognition for physically transforming before our very eyes. When he is introduced, he looks nothing like his younger analogs. Once a skinny teenager, Chiron is now a criminal hardened in both form and function; he sports an imposing, muscled body and threatening demeanor constructed to separate him from his younger self. But when Chiron reconnects with an old friend, he subtly but unmistakably transforms into the boy he buried deep inside. Actors who are celebrated merely for gaining or losing weight for a role seem like amateurs in comparison.
Even with Jenkins’ gaze focused squarely on his characters’ inner lives, he crafts a memorable environment around them. Filming in his hometown of Miami, he captures the colorful sights and sounds of a town rarely depicted outside of a Michael Bay film. His camera explores the city and its characters in perfect alignment with its characters. It spins and shakes in Chiron’s disorienting childhood. When we return to him as a repressed adult, it often lays still, as if frozen in fear.
But the heart of this film beats loud and strong. Tracing the emotional maturity of a damaged man through its trio of pivotal moments, Moonlight paints a portrait of masculine identity as tender and inclusive, and although it is far too humanistic to be considered political, it also feels deeply right for our era. With repressed men of all races increasingly finding reason to lash out, Moonlight asks us to put down our arms and open our hearts. It’s a movie that could win Oscars, although given the Academy’s historical and recent failures, it probably deserves an even higher honor.
Rating: 4.5 burritos out of 5
Featured image: A24