Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Illumination: Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT

Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight

The soft, warm crackle of radio waves zeroing in on Boris Gardiner's voice cheerfully singing "Every Nigger is a Star" from somewhere in the lost year of 1973; the sleek blue hood of a car gliding towards the frame, the driver smoothly maneuvering his vehicle, bringing it to a halt; the heart-racing rush as the camera, following the man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), suddenly takes off, swooping at an exhilarating speed around him as he walks across the street to meet one of his corner dealers and the customer pleading with him for a front, executed as a graceful, seamlessly coordinated revolving ballet of fluid vision, movement, and interaction that nearly makes you gasp in your seat; then a fresh jolt as the film shifts to young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) being chased by a pack of bullies, the small boy and the world through which he races reduced to an abstract blur of motion and color by way of the camera just barely keeping up with the fleeing child, relaying back to us the bare essentials of the image: white shirt, blue backpack, black boy, green wilderness.

Right there, in that astonishing, pleasurably varied succession of sensory discoveries and delights delivered in just a few minutes, writer-director Barry Jenkins, his cinematographer James Laxton, and the team of artists who worked to bring Moonlight (2016) to life, make one of their primary objectives known loud and clear: they are right there in it, in the distinct world of this film's story and characters (specifically the neighborhood of  Liberty City, Miami, where most of the action takes place), and they want you too to be right there with them, seeing and hearing and feeling this place not strictly as it is, but more as it is felt and processed by the people who live there, heightened and intensified by the tides and storms of subjective emotion that can render any place into sweetest paradise or darkest hell.

A graduate of Florida State University's film program, Jenkins gradually developed his natural talent and humanistic, multiculturally-focused worldview across a series of accomplished short films including My Josephine (2003), Little Brown Boy (2003), One Shot (2009), and Chlorophyl (2011)  as well as his 2009 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which has earned favorable comparisons to Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013). But Moonlight is something else all together, signifying a great quantum leap forward in terms of Jenkins' confidence, skill, instincts, and harmony with his fellow collaborators. Together, what they pulled off with this film legitimately amounts to nothing less than a miraculous achievement, deftly rendering Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue into the kind of viewing experience that effortlessly reawakens one's sense of wonder and respect for cinema's capabilities as an art form. The phenomenal, universally-adoring audience response, critical acclaim, and awards recognition the film has received since its 2016 release speaks as much to the outstanding quality and clarity of its craft as the timely relevance of its subject matter.

Not one to conceal his influences  - or resist a good opportunity to geek out, always with tangible and sincere love and respect, over everything from Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999) and David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000) to, more recently via his active Twitter feed, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (2017) and Roger Michell's Notting Hill (1999) - Jenkins has cited three filmmakers as being especially helpful in guiding him towards the best way to tell Chiron's story of self-discovery and -acceptance as a young gay black man growing up under adverse conditions. He has frequently declared Claire Denis his favorite filmmaker, drawing from her formidable examples of crystalline clarity and natural reliance on "feeling, instinct, and craft" to inform and shape his own passages of sensual, hard-edged lyricism - the way Jenkins portrays male bodies and physical contact in Moonlight isn't that far from the earthy, similarly tactile world of flesh, sand, and stone in Denis' 1999 masterpiece Beau travail (a picture posted by MUBI's Notebook of the two directors sharing a table and a bottle of red wine at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival no doubt sent cinephiles around the world into fits of euphoria). Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times (2005) gave Jenkins the idea to reorganize the temporally-shuffled events of McCraney's play into three concise parts, each one rooted in a different stage of young Chiron's life and appropriately titled with the name Chiron goes by in each stage (i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black - this is a film very much bound up in the giving, using, and owning of names), while the sophisticated camerawork rendered by the Taiwanese master and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing across their many films together led Jenkins and Laxton to compose virtuoso shots like the aforementioned opener that follows Juan out of his car as well as more low-key but no less elaborate ones like the long take that depicts Chiron's entrance into Kevin's diner in Moonlight's final act. And Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong's maestro of melancholia, awakened Jenkins to the ravishing possibilities of cinema and romance, giving him the courage and faith to make Moonlight into a sumptuous, quietly expressive mood piece founded upon and driven by its characters and their carefully guarded feelings of heartache and longing. Telling traces of Wong's cinema pop up all throughout Moonlight in intriguing new forms: the bright blue, yellow, and white floral pattern worn by Chiron's mother Paula (Naomie Harris) that summons the indelible memory of Maggie Cheung's exquisite cheongsams in In the Mood for Love (2000); the smeary handheld shot of the fleeing Chiron that recalls the similarly abstract, step-printed foot chases in Chungking Express (1994); and, in a direct nod to the Buenos Aries-set gay love story Happy Together (1997), the use of Caetano Velosa's "Cucurrucucú Paloma" in the film's final act. These and other bits and pieces of Denis, Hou, and Wong embedded throughout Moonlight amount to more than simply a young filmmaker's signs of learning and gestures of appreciation for these three modern masters and the lessons their films have imparted. They also serve to remind us, as Jenkins realized through films like Chungking Express, Happy Together, and Park Chul-Soo's 301, 302 (1995), of "just how small the world is" - a realization arrived at by all of these worldly, word-class artists through their dedication to their art and the specific cultural, social, geographical, and psychological milieu of each film and the emotional worlds of the people who live there. Across works as diverse as Moonlight, Beau travail, Café Lumière (2003) and In the Mood for Love, one can clearly sense the devotion of each filmmaker and their collaborators to their chosen subjects and environments, their skills working to place us beneath the lush green palm trees and cloudy blue skies of Chiron's sweltering Miami, atop the harsh surfaces of rock, sand, and salt in Beau travail's Djibouti outpost, within the confining maze of stairwells, corridors, and rooms in Wong's tantalizing 1960s Hong Kong, and amidst the various avenues, walkways, apartments, and train stations Hou wanders through in his leisurely tours of cities ranging from Tokyo to Paris to, of course, Taipei. In all of these places, we rediscover with fresh eyes the prevalence of familiar, heart-rending human pursuits - affection, acceptance, the comfort of home and family, the intoxication of mutual desire, the agony of its elusiveness - and are invited to marvel at their myriad manifestations across this unlikely assortment of settings, characters, and circumstances - and the equally myriad ways of seeing them. Therein lies one of the sweet spots of exploring world cinema and finding artists as adventurous as these: that special place where cultural and historical specificity merges with the nebula of shared experiences and known feelings, striking chords of recognition and enlightenment alike.

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"The blackness of [Moonlight] is inherent in that I'm black, Tarell is black, the neighborhood

 is black, and Chiron is black. But, saying it's not the point doesn't mean that I'm not aware
 that we're addressing this part that relates to the specificity of our experience. There are so 
many of us now doing it that we feel like we are creating this really expansive tapestry."
                                                                                             -Barry Jenkins, Film Quarterly interview

"Let me tell you something, man. There are black people everywhere. You remember that, okay?"

                                                                                                                                   -Juan, Moonlight

Whether you want to look at it as a bonafide Black New Wave or turn to Jenkins' eloquent counter-analogy of a tapestry of individuals working on their own facets of black identity, the recent, noticeable surge in strong, complex, compelling new works by black artists tied to the black experience in contemporary America has made up one of the most exciting and inspiring phenomena in contemporary media culture. Acting as a provocative response and necessary corrective to the dominance of white culture in the entertainment landscape, this terrific rise in high-quality black cinema is a hopeful sign of positive change finally taking hold in a deeply imbalanced system: not only are there more talented and driven black artists at work and rising to deserving places of prominence and influence, but also more means, resources, and collaborators available to help complete and distribute their projects and a bigger audience than ever before eager to experience these works and uncover and support the long-neglected chapters of essential black art that have been overpowered by the white culture establishment for so long (Slate's Black Film Canon and Black Star, the TIFF Bell Lightbox's recent program of significant films in the legacy of black cinema represent encouraging measures of recognition and rediscovery in this vital sector of film history). From Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015), and Black Panther (2018) to Ava DuVernay's Selma (2014), 13TH (2016), and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and the ensuing resurgence of interest in the influential black writer and critic James Baldwin (which will continue with Jenkins' upcoming adaptation of Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk) to the miraculous resurrection of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) and the work that helped make it happen, Beyoncé Knowles' astonishing visual album Lemonade (2016), to notable television series like Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, and Spike Lee's Netflix series reboot of She's Gotta Have It to the success of Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), the tapestry of black voices and stories has indeed become especially rich and comprehensive over the past few years, and at this rate is, thankfully, bound to only keep expanding.

Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome in Moonlight

Working away in his own Floridian corner of the world, Jenkins did something particularly special, groundbreaking even, in making Moonlight: without surrendering one iota of dedication to the specificity and delicate nuance of Chiron's story, the filmmaker actively resisted the tired, harmful, stereotype-riddled methods and tropes perpetuated by Hollywood for so long in its representations of black culture, arriving instead at an array of ingenious alternatives that bring refreshing measures of dignity, artistry, and liberation to the film and set an inspiring new example for the black directors of tomorrow to follow, beginning with the bold decision to have the cast comprised entirely of black actors. In a story that wades deep into the territory of so many reductive and malignant depictions of black culture - poverty, drugs, crime - Jenkins carefully establishes this setting by way of a few brief, sufficiently vivid brush strokes - a handful of short scenes at the street corner, the quick flash of a gun, signs of wealth in the form of the cars, clothes, and jewelry displayed by Juan and, later on, the adult Chiron - then quickly moves past them to, with his actors, fully flesh out the characters and layers of feeling and personality that define and drive them, as seen in Mahershala Ali's soulful, leonine embodiment of Juan, Janelle Monáe's serene presence as his caring girlfriend Teresa, the ferocity, desperation, and sadness Naomie Harris brings to the crack-addicted single mother Paula, and the depths of pain, fear, and stifled longing conveyed by Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders as, respectively, the child and teenaged Chiron living under her care, further developed and complicated by Trevante Rhodes's heartbreaking blend of swagger and vulnerability in the film's third act. After noticing so many films in which the black actors would be covered with unflattering layers of dry, powdery makeup (a trend noticed more recently in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit (2017)), Jenkins made Moonlight into an "oil and sheen" movie by constantly spraying down his actors so that, on camera, they would convey a look of "shiny, moist, basically revitalizing and replenishing and alive skin." Instead of loading down the film with a collection of overused hip-hop or predictable pop songs, Jenkins decided on a more eclectic soundtrack that compliments both the setting and his characters' emotions ranging from classical (Mozart, Nicholas Britell's orchestral score) to trap music (a modified version of Jidenna's "Classic Man") to Barbara Lewis. And instead of having the darker story elements dictate a "gritty," realist-miserablist style for the project, Jenkins and his teammates made an unapologetically beautiful film replete with elegant compositions, breathtaking camera movements, rich sound design, and a bright, saturated color palette that pops with bursts of lush greens, blues, violets, and, of course, a diverse spectrum of rich brown skin tones, all proving with exemplary panache that tragic circumstances shouldn't - and sometimes simply can't - blight out beauty's intense bloom in the world around us.

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"This is the story of a lifetime."

                                                                                              -Moonlight's poster tagline

While the above statement might suggest an air of ambition or even grandeur that hangs thick throughout the film it is attached to, Moonlight is in fact a feat of streamlined, naturalistic cinema, fully delivering on the promise made by that tagline in the simplest, most direct and effective manner there is. Jenkins and McCraney understand that the stuff of lifetimes (and definitely the stuff that makes great stories out of them) doesn't necessarily involve the full breadth of meaningful events, sensations, feelings, and details that accrue throughout a life. Rather, they know how to sift and sort through everything and pick out the pieces that for whatever reason linger in memory (ours and Chiron's): the group of boys running and tumbling together in boisterous, joyful play on a vast green field as a freight train passes a short distance from them, sounding its horn; Juan's first appearance before Chiron, big and bearlike but also patient and kind as he coaxes the boy from the derelict apartment where he's taken refuge from bullies; the justly iconic swimming lesson Juan gives him in the swelling waters of the Atlantic Ocean as a storm approaches above them; a rare scene of uninhibited bliss for Chiron as he energetically dances to the Performers' "Mini Skirt" all by himself before a mirror in a room packed with kids. Drawing from his and McCraney's similar, simultaneously- but separately-lived experiences growing up in the same neighborhood (just a block or so away from where Moonlight was shot) under the care of crack-addicted mothers, Jenkins also inserts some truly nightmarish images that haunt Chiron into adulthood, the most vivid of which being the sinister purple light that pours from Paula's room when she is caught in the grip of her addiction, staring and screaming at her son like a ferocious wraith. Her betrayal of Chiron, and Juan's by selling drugs to her, become hard lessons in the elusiveness of true trust, already so scarce in the pressurized environment of incessant homophobic taunting through which he must pass day after day, that will only be match by the tragic role his friend and potential romance Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) plays in the ambush set by high school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) in the middle chapter, all leading Chiron further down his lonely road of fear, self-reliance, and extreme wariness of others.

As the film slips across the years via the points of blue and red light that skip and flash across a field of black between the film's chapters, we take note of the jarring changes that have overtaken the characters in their respective journeys, gradually registering significant absences, signs of growth and deterioration, adjustments in attitude and consistencies in character. True to the heavenly body of its title, Moonlight fully illustrates the ongoing cycles of repetition and change that make up the flow of time, bringing about lunar phases and the swelling and receding of the tides in a constant dance of regularity and variation. So it is with Chiron, who learns to hide his true self behind a protective cloak of silence, then all but buries it when he adopts the name Kevin bestows upon him in the second act, Black, emulating Juan as he too moves into a life of crime, adorning muscles, bling, and swagger that just barely hides the insecurity and sensitive sweetness that still lie within him like veins of silver in the bedrock of hardened masculinity. Even more than Juan or Teresa, Kevin is especially determined to help Chiron break out of his shell, popping up in his path at oddly opportune moments to seemingly guide him to the formative sexual experiences of his life (at times I wonder just how coincidental these occurrences actually are - just how neglectful was young Kevin (Jaden Piner) of the lock on the door Chiron finds and opens? What was teenage Kevin doing at the beach that night?), culminating in that pivotal moment at the water's edge, where a joint shared in the soft, pale glow of the moon, waves lapping at the beach's edge in the darkness, and the closeness of the two boys sitting together in the sand all merge into a dreamlike moment of open, shared affection.

Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in Moonlight

Years later, when Kevin (André Holland) calls Chiron out of the blue and invites him to his diner, the currents of life have taken the two men to different, separate places, delivering to Kevin a relationship that has run its course, a child of his own, a decent job he works with tangible dedication and pride, a newfound sense of responsibility, appreciation, and acceptance of what life has given him, and a firm grasp on who he is and where he is in his life. With Chiron's entrance into Kevin's restaurant - the whole film seems to build towards the ring of the small bell above the door - Jenkins dives head-on into the stuff of classic Wong Kar-Wai and never looks back, distilling years of lost time and unrequited yearning into the moving expressions of genuine surprise and delight that come over Kevin upon seeing his friend again (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders' editing and Rhodes and Holland's performances all throughout this splendid sequence comprise a veritable symphony of layered emotion and crackling chemistry), the incredibly tender embrace the two exchange following the initial jolt of recognition, the sweet sound of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" played on a jukebox(!). Then there is the quintessentially Wongian convergence of food and romance: after numerous scenes in which Chiron is offered and served food, we finally get a good look at what he is eating when Kevin offers to cook him a special dish, the camera lavishing nearly as much attention as Kevin does upon a lime squeezed over something sizzling away on the griddle; a cup of fresh rice carefully placed onto a plate, making an appetizing white dome; a scoop of some delicious-looking blueberry creation ladled next to it. Chiron's persistent reluctance to speak throughout the meal and two bottles of red wine Kevin brings out isn't rude or off-putting so much as it is quietly devastating, anchored in his lifelong wariness of revealing his true self, his extreme hesitation to do so to the person he cares the most about, even though Kevin all but radiates the promise of true, unconditional acceptance (even as he expresses disappointment over Chiron's descent into the gangster lifestyle and the superficial trappings of gold fronts and a flashy car that it brought him). As you watch his eyes and face tell a different story than what his words and attire say about him, the real him, it becomes a simple matter of you so wanting Chiron to finally remove his armor and let the right one in.

Thankfully, we leave Chiron feeling fairly confident that, with some help, he will finally find some solace from all the silent suffering he has been through. He has arrived at a new place of acceptance of his true self and feelings, and also one of genuine happiness, one step closer to freeing himself of the burdens of shame, guilt, and fear that have followed him for so long. The dual impact of Moonlight's significant achievements as both a visceral, immaculately crafted cinematic experience and an invaluable humanist work that revitalizes the conventions of black and gay film leaves us with a similar feeling of hope and inspiration for the road ahead, which now seems a little clearer, lit by the bright, silvery sheen of pure cinema.