Moonlight (US 2016)


What the future holds

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason but just because I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron . . . I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about . . . well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I . . ?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance. 


  1. keith1942

    I had assumed that ‘Moonlight’s win was both a guilt response to 2016 and a dig at the new President. I take your comments on the review by Camilla Long. However she does point up a problem. There are probably a number of factors but there are specific and often minority groups (such as black Afro-Caribbean and Asian audiences) that are often missing from screenings of films like this. I have seen a packed auditorium when a title has particular publicity, but I have also seen a film that addresses a minority and yet no members of that group visible in the audience.
    I think this is a larger problem about how films can be accessed. I do not think the BFI strategies are really effective and Cinema for All does not really address the theatrical scene.
    I noted the recent BFI ‘mission statements’ included diversity; it will be interesting to see how they think they can deliver.

  2. Roy Stafford

    I’m not sure I understand your sentence about the purpose of the Academy Awards. I think that they were introduced to boost the status and prestige of Hollywood. It’s only relatively recently that they have attracted a large audience as an entertainment show and that what I would call ‘Awards films’ have dominated global release schedules in January/February. On that basis, this year’s focus on African-American films seems to be partly a genuine attempt at diversity and partly saving face in terms of prestige.

    I was certainly engaged by the film, but I’m not sure I got the same emotional charge from it that many reviewers have mentioned. Partly my problem is that I couldn’t distinguish about half of the dialogue since, like much of American Independent cinema, the actors seem to mumble the dialogue. (Yes, I’m losing some of my hearing as well.) If I watch the DVD I’ll put the subs on. I can see your argument about the rack focus and handheld camerawork but I’m glad it stopped as Chiron got older. I would have liked to know more about the Black culture in Florida (and especially about the Cuban presence). John Sayles’ Sunshine State (2002) is the only other film I can think of at the moment to feature Black identity in the state. Unfortunately, I have the same problem with hip-hop that I have with the film’s dialogue, so I didn’t get any cultural meanings from the songs – apart of course from the wonderful Barbara Lewis ‘Hello Stranger’. But why that song for the narrative climax? I know the lyrics fit but it’s a unique 1963 sound in the shift from R&B to soul. What did I miss? Do we assume that the film covers the period from the mid 1990s to the present?

    Re Keith’s observation, Hebden Bridge Picture House was packed for the matinee this morning.

  3. keith1942

    I Know what Roy means about the dialogue and music, but I could follow enough to make sense of the film. I thought it was a combination of how dialogue is recorded and accents.
    Good to hear that the HBPH had a large audience. However, ‘Moonlight’ has the advantage of Academy status. I think more ‘indie’ titles suffer in the current climate.
    My memory is that ‘Sunshine State’ did not get large audiences, though it is a fine film.

  4. nicklacey

    Certainly Academy Awards were about prestige but Hollywood’s not interested in prestige unless it can make money hence the marketing function even in the Golden Age. I had no problem hearing the dialogue; I saw the film in Cineworld, Bradford where the lights went up the moment the screen faded to black at the end: crass!). Barbara Lewis’ song, I felt, wasn’t about its cultural resonance but simply communicates Kevin’s feelings about Chiron.

    • Roy Stafford

      Hmm! I don’t disagree with you about Hollywood’s commercial instincts but distribution and therefore marketing have changed significantly since the studio period.

      Re ‘Hello Stranger’ here is Jenkins’ own explanation:

      “The reason that song is in the film is because it’s written in the script — the lyrics are literally written into the script — and on set when we filmed that scene, we actually played the song out loud during the takes, which you’re never supposed to do because you can’t guarantee you’re gonna clear the rights of the song. But that song is in the film because when I lived in San Francisco, there was this soul night that happens on Tuesdays where they would play only vinyl 45s. It was for grown folks. You’re not coming out to get crazy and drunk, you’re gonna sit down, sip a little whiskey and listen to this very chill soul. Every time that song came on, I just got this feeling, you know? It was overwhelming. And I wanted to give this feeling to the audience.” (from an interview on

      Re the information I missed. The film is set in the district of Miami known as Liberty City, which I read has a significant role in the history of African-American culture in Florida. In interviews Barry Jenkins suggests that there are many other cultural referents and I suspect that the selection of hip-hop tracks is important.

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