By Phillip Guy Ellis (Northampton)
Moonlight over Miami
Star – Director Barry Jenkins
Genre – Drama
Run Time – 1 hr 51 minutes
Certificate – 18
Country – U.S.A
Oscars – Won 3 from 8 nominations
Awards – 212 Wins & 259 Nominations
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So, after the ‘all white’ Oscar actor winner thing of 2016 and the protests that followed, The Academy clearly felt under pressure to level things up some in 2017, which they did. They shopped around for decent black, ethnic and LGBT minority themed movies to give nominations and awards to and they found them, Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures, accruing 5 Golden Statues, going up against the very white and Hollywood La La Land. It was like a shootout between old Arian America of the 1960s verses new politically correct urban America. La La Land would win 6 Oscars from its 14 nominations.
Moonlight was released in late November, 2016, in the peak of the chasing awards and nominations lobbying season and so must have felt it had a chance to cash in on some of that black blowback. The opening scenes to the movie pump out the tune ‘Every N—r Is A Star’ by Boris Gardiner, suggesting exactly the uncompromising black movie Hollywood was looking for to repent.
This is the first film since Braveheart (1995) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture without winning awards from the Producers Guild of America or Directors Guild of America. That may suggest they were not under the same pressures to bump this movie up. It was the first Academy Award ‘Best Picture’ winner by a black filmmaker who both directed and wrote the screenplay. Black actor Mahershala Ali won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this with less than 20 minutes of screen time and apparently the first Muslim to win an Oscar. Hollywood had to break a few taboos that night. About time to!
Director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney are the third and fourth African-American screenwriters to win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay after Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious (2009) and John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave (2013). Moonlight received those eight nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, the second highest of all nominees, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for Ali), Best Supporting Actress (for Naomi Harris) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
This was the year, of course, of the infamous mix up, presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty reading out La La Land as the winner of Best Picture, not Moonlight. Beatty later stated that he had mistakenly been given the duplicate Best Actress envelope, for which Emma Stone had won for her role in La La Land several minutes earlier, so the story goes. This is also the first LGBT film, and the first film featuring an all-black cast, to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Moonlight producer Dede Gardner is the first woman to win the Academy Award for ‘Best Picture’ twice. Her first award was for 12 Years a Slave (2013).
The film is based on the unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by MacArthur Fellow and Tarell Alvin McCraney. The title comes from an experience the writers had when an old lady said to Tarell that black boys look blue under moonlight.
• Chiron Harris as Black
• Trevante Rhodes as Adult Chiron / “Black”
• Ashton Sanders as Teen Chiron / “Black” (nickname given by Kevin)
• Alex Hibbert as Child Chiron / “Little”
• Kevin Jones, Chiron’s closest friend
• André Holland as Adult Kevin
• Jharrel Jerome as Teen Kevin
• Jaden Piner as Child Kevin
• Naomie Harris as Paula, Chiron’s mother
• Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend
• Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron
• Patrick Decile as Terrel, a school bully
In Liberty City, Miami, Cuban drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) comes across a withdrawn kid (Alex Hibbert) who goes by the nickname “Little”, hiding out in a crack house after being chased by bullies in his cute school uniform. Juan, taking sympathy for the little one and unsure where he is from, allows Chiron to crash with him and his younger girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) to keep him safe and work out where his family is before returning him in the morning.
Chiron lives with his mother Paula (Naomi Harris), a drug addict who Little can’t stand to be around, why he is so quiet and withdrawn. The kid continues to spend time with Juan, who teaches him how to swim and advises him on how tough life can be and the choices you must take… his new father figure. Problem is Juan also sells crack to his mom Paula. Juan tries to make her feel guilty about not looking after her kid but he is the guilty one.
She also rants at Chiron that she knows why he gets bullied, alluding to “the way he walks”. Chiron tries to come to terms with his sexuality and contradictions, and that his new guardian messing up his mom with crack, school friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) the only one who seems to understand his pain.
Now a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is less withdrawn but still spends his day trying to avoid school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), and spending time with Teresa, who now lives alone. Paula now supports her crack addiction with prostitution and always hitting up her high school son for money to buy drugs.
Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) visits Chiron at the beach near his house one day. While smoking a blunt at the beach, the two discuss their ambitions and the nickname Kevin gave Chiron when they were children, Black. They then kiss and have their first gay experience together. Unfortunately this is a big taboo in the black community and Terrel drags Kevin into kicking the cr*p out of Chiron for the gay rumors. If he backs down on the beating he could be bullied, or far worse, they could find out he is also gay. The following day, Chiron can take no more from the bullying in his life and finally hits back…
We meet the boys all grown adults in their various jobs, Chiron a cook in a pleasant Miami Beach restaurant, Kevin the macho and cliché drug dealer in the hood, both still hiding their sexuality. The two haven’t spoken for years after that night and the subsequent beating but are those feelings still there when Chiron calls Kevin out of the blue…?
As you would expect there were no big queues in the hood to watch this movie, a gay romance a hard sell in Liberty City, Miami. In fact it was shot in those same rough areas of the city and the ‘local community’ only coming onboard for having the shoot in their manner when they found out Barry Jenkins grew up there and a local boy made good. If the residents of Liberty had known that movie being made was a black male gay romance I bet they would not be as accommodating. I still haven’t watched Brokeback Mountain as the idea of two stubbled cowboys locking square jaws on the ranch just not appealing. Being black and gay is a huge taboo in that community and can earn you a serious beating for going against the macho culture of the brutal black underclass, as it would be with the good old boys in Texas. The actors were brave to get involved in this is all I can say although there is not much actually physical gay sex and romance in this film. The movie is all about trying to grow up in a hostile environment to those taboos that make most of your choices.
As this is an Oscar drama around minority issues it’s not the most recommended movie although clearly well-made and acted. The critics uniformly loved it as its one of those low budget films all about the nuance, the visual metaphors and ‘the message’, the stuff they love, than the actual excitement quality. The audiences are simply being exposed to things they are not normally exposed to and asked to think about that stuff. I did and still conflicted. Not on gay issues but the hypocrisy of the same black community who will ‘take a knee’ for black oppression but certainly wouldn’t for gay men in sports oppression, black skin and homosexuality just as genetic as any other race.
There are one or two issues here; like that the actors that play the kids at different stages don’t look anything like each other. Also the actual acting Oscars seem to be for the composite performances rather than one particular actor in a timeline, a remorseful Academy perhaps pressured to give it to Mahershala Ali from handful of good performances because he is Muslim. I thought nominated Naomi Harris was the best thing in it and she does feature in all of the timelines. She was actually promoting the Bond movie when she worked on this film and would nip over to Miami between promotional tour events to do her bits. She is brilliant in this and one of those down to earth and beautiful actresses I really like.
Those queues got a bit bigger in Black America when this was nominated for The Oscars and went on to do $65 million after the production company spent another three million on publicizing it. It’s clearly a good film and made with heart and soul but a hard one to sell. It did touch me though and an important film all the same.
Barry Jenkins said that the three actors who play Chiron never met during production. He wanted each of them to build their own version of Chiron during their respective segments, with no influence or dynamic from the other portrayals. The same deal was used with the actors who play Kevin.
I don’t think Jenkins had any Oscar hopes when making this as that racism is real in the stuck in its ways Academy, the cast having to share the same trailers and hotel rooms down in the Miami locations as the budget was so tight. In fact this is a lower budget than any other ‘Best Picture’ winner since Rocky in 1976, which cost $1.1 million in its day. According to Variety magazine if the budgets are adjusted for inflation, then Moonlight has to be regarded as the ‘Best Picture’ winner with the lowest budget ever.
This is a case of a brilliant new directing talent exploding on the scene as he had a vision and a very modern story to tell and tackle. He says he drew on his own experiences growing up in the hood to a crack addicted mother and suffering bullying although unsure if he is subtly coming out as gay admitting that. They say you should write what you know.
IMDb.com – 7.5/10.0 (154,235votes)
Rottentomatos.com – % critic’s approval
Metacritic.com – 99% critic’s approval