FOR the inaugural PLEASURE PODCAST // Andre Bagoo and Christopher Lou-Hing take a look at Moonlight, which is up for eight Oscars on Sunday. Does the film deserve the accolades heaped on it? Is it a good film or a great film? And will it be a watershed moment in queer cinema? After listening to the podcast, you can also read a full review of the film below.
Moonlight, a film doubly rare
By Andre Bagoo
|Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali|
THE PACKED audience at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, for studiofilmclub’s screening of Moonlight was a sign of the tremendous buzz surrounding the film. Dozens of accolades have been heaped on Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age drama, and since its screening last month it’s been nominated for eight Oscars. Whether it wins any is beside the point. Here is a movie that achieves what good art should: it moves its audience to empathy and love.
This is one of those films in which nothing happens yet everything happens. It is structured in three acts, all following the progress of Chiron. We see him as a shell-shocked child (Alex Hibbert) navigating a world torn apart by drugs; as a frail closeted teen (Ashton Sanders) being bullied by schoolmates; and as a buff adult (Trevante Rhodes) who has re-invented himself outwardly, even if he hasn’t yet found expression for his inner desires.
Like Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), which deals with gay life within the Korean-American community, Moonlight gives us something doubly rare: a film about a race not represented enough, and then a minority within that race. Yes, there are black people and some of us are gay. I’ve been waiting too long for this.
At one stage, when two stunning acts of violence occur, we are given a stark choice: be left devastated at the tragic consequences for the main character, or cheer loudly at poetic justice. The crowd at studiofilmclub cheered. Trinidadians are yearning to see themselves onscreen and to live in a world where people aren’t taken advantage of just because they are gay or different in some way.
Still, Chiron pays a price for his actions. In the process, Jenkins subtly raises difficult questions about the criminal justice system—how its narrow gaze ignores wider social conditions and history. It’s the old determinism versus free will debate.
None of this should suggest Moonlight is a philosophical treatise. Its strength lies in its singular focus on the human stories that populate it, including that of Juan, a charismatic drug-dealer played by Mahershala Ali. Juan is haunted by a guilt that seems to manifest itself in the form of little Chiron. We learn Chiron’s mother Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris) is one of the people to whom Juan sells drugs, effectively enabling the addiction that has torn Chiron’s life apart.
But while it does a good job of depicting black male experience, Moonlight struggles to shake the Madonna-whore complex when it comes to its female figures. They are either overwhelmingly supportive of the men in their lives, or largely sources of trauma. Paula is almost the Hollywood stereotype of a black woman: a crack-head veering out of control. What redeems the film’s treatment of her are early and late scenes that give her a layered complexity. (Harris has spoken about her initial reluctance to take the part, a reluctance she overcame when Jenkins told her the character was akin to his real-life mother.)
|Naomie Harris as Paula|
While the film seems to fly in its first two acts, things slow down in its third. Developments essential to our understanding of Chiron happen, but much of the conflict is largely off-stage, reducing the tension. We learn that he has molted and become someone at odds with the sexuality explored in his youth. An act of fate triggers a literal voyage of re-discovery. As in Jenkin’s previous film, the wonderfully peripatetic Medicine for Melancholy, we see how the biggest moments of a life are the quietest ones.
And those quiet moments are truly stunning. Jenkin and his cinematographer James Laxon exercise restraint in their use of imagery. They give us the moon only once, but make it count in a stunning dissolve over the ocean. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score veers between stirring violins to Caetano Veloso.
In a marked departure from films such as Get Real, Philadelphia, and even the recent Caribbean films Children of God and Play the Devil, Jenkins dispenses with the standard tragic ending. This is not the place for the passion-infused horror of Brokeback Mountain. It is, instead, a lagniappe to James Ivory’s delicious Maurice. There is one particularly beautiful moment when Chiron takes a glimpse at a path leading to the sea. He could go down that path to the raging waters. Of perhaps he can stay on dry land and, with his beloved, learn to swim. Bravely, he stays in the light.
MORE FAVORITE FILMS OF 2016
Paterson: I'm slightly biased about this one. A film about a bus-driver who writes poems. But Jim Jarmusch makes this work. Plus there is an Oscar-worthy performance by Nellie the bulldog as Marvin.
Hidden Figures: A popcorn movie that does justice to unheralded figures, it also is a sobering reminder that segregation and state-sanctioned racism was a fact of life only a few decades ago in the US. How far has the world really come since then in an age of Trump and Brexit?
Loving: A completely overlooked, powerful film featuring the best performances of the year by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. The true story of inter-racial couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were arrested for simply getting married.
Lion: In its first half, this is the kind of film Satyajit Ray would have made were he alive today. The second half loses some momentum but is still moving, with great performances by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.
Play the Devil: A milestone in Trinidad and Tobago cinema which, notwithstanding its tragic ending, impresses with its ravishing poetry.
Arrival: A smart, stylish tear-jerker of a film about the importance of language, disguised as a sci-fi thriller.
NB: Omissions are inevitable, also liked: Closet Monster, Other People, King Cobra, and the Absolutely Fabulous movie!