Sometimes the cycle of seeing a ton of movies and writing about them with a quick turnaround can lead to some moments of regret. A movie that requires a bit more thought isn’t given the time because of deadlines and other factors. That’s the case with my initial review of Moonlight, a movie that I certainly liked the first time around but it didn’t blow me away as it did with most of my peers. Having revisited Barry Jenkins’ film for its Blu-ray release, the poetry of Moonlight’s stunning story makes me regret my initial review as I feel that missed rhyming structure of its three-chapter structure. Now Academy Award winner for Best Picture winner arrives on Blu-ray just days after its stunning and unusual Oscar night victory. Make no mistake, the mix up which occurred on the stage of the Dolby Theater Sunday night should not overshadow a powerful, beautiful piece of cinema about the struggle to find one’s self.
The Academy Award winning screenplay by Jenkins based on an unproduced play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s tells the story of Chiron in three separate periods in his life growing up in Miami. The first chapter has him as a young boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert). The child is the constant victim of bullying, and seeking refuge from his tormentors finds him meeting Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer that takes the young boy under his wing. Chiron doesn’t speak much and is an incredibly withdrawn child, but that doesn’t stop Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) from imparting their own wisdom on the young boy who is struggling to understand his place in the world. Meanwhile, Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomi Harris) is struggling with her own demons as a crack addict. On the playground, the only other child willing to extend a level of kindness to Chiron is Kevin (Jaden Piner).
The second chapter focuses on Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a teenager. His mother is still wrecked with her addiction and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Chiron is still the target for bullies and the young man hasn’t pulled out of his shell. In the harsh world of high school, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still the only one of his peers that treats him with any level of kindness, often bragging about his sexual exploits with the girls. One night on the beach while sharing a blunt, Chiron and Kevin have a sexual encounter on the sand beneath the moonlight. But the constant bullying at school takes its mental toll on Chiron and he lashes out at one of his tormentors, leading to his arrest and closing that one chapter in his life.
The third and final chapter has Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) all grown up. He’s now living in Atlanta and has taken up the profession of Juan, slinging drugs on the streets. The years haven’t made Chiron any more talkative, as he maintains a façade of macho stoicism. One night, Chiron gets a late night telephone call from Kevin (André Holland). The two haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and Chiron makes the trip from Atlanta to Miami to pop in at the restaurant Kevin works at. Kevin cooks Chiron his dinner and the two catch up and reminisce about old times, leading Chiron to confront a part of himself that he has tried to hide under a steely demeanor. As Kevin asks him, “Who is you, Chiron?” It’s a question that the young man hasn’t asked himself and one he’s not prepared to answer.
Three chapters of Chiron’s life, three moments that are defined by the quiet character’s interactions with the people around continue to echo through his life. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” Juan tells young Chiron in the film’s first chapter and that all reverberates back to the film’s final moments when he’s confronted with the question “Who is you, Chiron?” It’s this fundamental aspect of Moonlight that resonates most strongly about the film. For much of his life, Chiron struggles mightily with figuring out who he is, and seemingly allows the external factors of those who have drifted in and out his life to define him before reaching the ultimate realization at the film’s emotional climax.
Each and every performance in Moonlight is an astounding feat of acting, headlined by the Oscar winning performance by Mahershala Ali, who undoubtedly deserved the award. Naomi Harris gives a chilling performance as Chiron’s troubled mother, one that is haunting and was more than deserving of an Academy Award nomination. In her first performance on screen, Janelle Monáe delivers an incredible performance of warmth and empathy which along with her role in Hidden Figures confirms that the pop star is also a movie star. All three of the young men tasked with bringing Chiron to life in the film are incredible, with Trevante Rhodes proving himself the breakout star of the trio. The quiet tension between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland give Moonlight its knockout punch at the end.
The special features on the Blu-ray for Moonlight include an audio commentary by writer-director Barry Jenkins, where he explains the true stories behind his second feature. There are also three featurettes that explore various aspects of the Academy Award winning film. One featurette examines the assembling of the ensemble cast that carry home the powerful emotion of Moonlight. The other featurettes dive into the film’s location in Miami, where Barry Jenkins grew up, and the haunting original score for the film. The special features add a layer of depth to the movie itself, but the most impressive thing on the entire disc itself is the movie, one that will endure the test of time and serve as a landmark cinematic achievement.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway may have read from the wrong envelope the other night in a mix up that will talked about for decades, but don’t let that odd moment be the one that defines the legacy of Moonlight. Don’t let anyone tell you that Moonlight won because of political correctness and solely because of its black cast and director; anyone selling that particular line of BS has their own political agenda and likely haven’t actually watched the film. In the rarest of instances, Moonlight won because it was the best of the nominees. It’s a powerful portrait of self-discovery under incredibly difficult circumstances. This is cinematic poetry that unfolds with rhymes and rhythm that highlight the power of its story, a story that isn’t solely defined by aspects of race or sexuality. Moonlight is a film about the black experience and features a gay character struggling with his identity, but the themes behind it are universal. At some point we all have to ask ourselves: Who is you? It’s not always an easy question to answer.
Cinematic poetry that resonates, Moonlight is a powerful film that examines universal questions about identity in the story of a young black man in three moments in his life as he struggles to find out exactly who he is in a world surrounded by drugs and poverty.