In over a decade of watching over 200 movies a year, and trying to seek out independent movies, I've never seen a film about gay black men. That's really quite something when you think about it. And so it's deeply refreshing and heartening to see MOONLIGHT capture critical praise. That said, while I found much to admire in its intent and some of its performances, it was a less moving and impressive watch than I had anticipated.
The film is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and is based on their childhood experience of growing up gay in a deeply dysfunctional black community in Florida. What's impressive is that they manage to subvert the stereotypes of the black drug dealer and the crack whore, and the entire concept of masculinity by showing us what they know. The result is a film that feels claustrophobic and melancholy - of a community that is fundamentally dysfunctional, in which its members feel trapped, but where there is some slight hope of escape. It's also a community that feels odd to English eyes insofar as it's so un-diverse - the only white face we see is a cop.
The formal structure of the play carries over to the film: we meet our protagonist at three ages, in three thirty-five minute segments. In the first part he's a skinny schoolkid called Chiron (Alex R Hibbert), bullied for being camp, who finds solace from his crack addict single mother with a drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Jangle Monae). Against all expectations, it's the drug dealer who proves caring, understanding and comforting - even going so far as to tell young Chiron that he doesn't need to figure out of he's gay yet, and even if he is, he shouldn't feel ashamed of it. Moreover, Juan is morally complex, at once judgmental of Chiron's mother's drug addiction, but also conscious that he's the man selling to her. The power of Ali's performance in this segment is quite dazzling, and I'm not sure the film ever really recovers from his absence.