BY MARIANA JARAMILLO ’20 AND SONYA ROBINSON ’20
“Moonlight,” a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a gay man growing up in 1980s Miami projects, will solidify Barry Jenkins’s name in cinematic history. Formerly known for his 2008 indie film “Medicine for Melancholy,” Jenkins has skillfully delivered the year’s most important coming of age movie. Split into three parts — Little, Chiron and Black — “Moonlight” grapples with the intersection of race, sexuality and class.
The main character, Chiron, grapples not only with his sexuality but his sexuality in relation to his race. He is given labels and responsibilities that he doesn’t quite understand from a young age. In the first segment, entitled Little, we see Chiron taking care of himself at age nine, as his father is absent and his mother struggles with drug addiction.
Alex Hibbert’s performance as young Chiron is one of many standouts in the film. He portrays both fragility and strength seamlessly, building up his character’s relationships with skillful nuance.
Every member of the “Moonlight” cast, which includes singer and actress Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali from “House of Cards” and a host of newcomers, gives a virtually flawless performance.
One actor that deserves special recognition is Naomie Harris. Shooting her scenes as Chiron’s mother over the course of three days, Harris is the only cast member to play a character throughout all three stages of “Moonlight.” While the trope of an “absent, drug-addicted mother” may have fallen flat with a lesser actress in a lesser film, Harris rises above all the role’s potential pitfalls. It is the aching, beaten love for her son that makes Harris’s performance shine.
Another thing this movie does well is capture Miami’s huge economic gap, in no small part because Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Liberty City, the neighborhood in which “Moonlight” is set. The trailer suggests that Chiron lives near the beach, but due to Miami housing prices, Liberty City could not be farther from the coast. In order to get near South Beach, Chiron must take three buses and a train. The extreme poverty that Chiron faces is evident in the places he lives, the food that he eats and the school he is forced to attend due to modern day de facto segregation. As Jenkins weaves the audience through Chiron’s life, he also reveals the unseen side of a famous vacation city.
The purpose of equal representation in the media is not to have diversity for the sake of diversity — it helps combat the harmful stereotypes of black people as lazy leeches on the government and bring a sense of humanity to typically one-dimensional portrayals of dealers, drug addicts and gang members. “Moonlight” helps us see the world through Chiron’s eyes. He’s just a little boy that hates going home after school to his emotionally abusive mother. When asked about his experience while reading the script, actor Mahershela Ali, said the script caught his attention because that sort of story had simply never been told before. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign that began in 2015 shined light not only on who had been snubbed but also on the racially discriminatory qualities of the film production process in general. It’s incredible that a movie about an LGBTQ black man struggling with institutionalized racism during the War on Drugs era in Miami is now receiving so much Oscar buzz: “Moonlight” is a strong contender for the Best Feature Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actor categories (leading and supporting). There is still so much work to be done, but the success of “Moonlight” will hopefully inspire more racial and sexual diversity in the film world.
There is a deeply ingrained belief in the film industry of white men being the artistic geniuses that create masterpieces. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and so on have created a canon of films that set the precedence for what is considered the best. “Moonlight” is revolutionary in the sense that not only the cast but also the creators of the movie are people of color.