Never has one single year delivered so many high-caliber movies, documentaries and TV shows about the black experience. But none in 2016 stood out more than the coming-of-age drama “Moonlight.” This powerhouse of a film, uniquely told in three parts, captivates with its originality and radiant cinematography.
It’s a wonder the film even got made. It was an eight-year struggle for Barry Jenkins, who co-wrote, produced and directed, to bring Tarell Alvin McCraney’s obscure autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” to the screen.
“Moonlight” is the story of a young African-American who struggles with his masculinity, sexuality and identity while growing up in Liberty City, a section of Miami known for crime, drugs and hopelessness. Jenkins incorporated elements from his own life into the film, but it’s not about him.
The basics seem like familiar territory. A young kid has to deal with his crack-addicted mother (Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris) while being mentored by the neighborhood drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, also nominated). But there is nothing stereotypical here. The issues are complicated and tough but are handled with an understanding and sensitivity.
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“Moonlight” is poetic yet stark. Raw but tender. The dialogue resonates with authenticity, and the spaces between the words are filled with achingly gorgeous images that linger in your head.
The movie could have easily been labeled a “gay” story or a “hood” tale, but instead it plays as an intense and unflinching examination of identity, bullying and drug addiction, all problems that millions deal with every day. “Moonlight” brilliantly captures the nuances of these struggles with the help of perfectly cast actors and actresses, including Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monae in her first film.
In a stunning feat, the main character, Chiron, is played by three actors in three stages of his life. Actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes all perfectly morph into one another. It really is a casting coup.
What “Moonlight” does best is it erases the notion that stories about other ethnicities and cultures are risky. There isn’t a single non-black in the film. And why should there be? There is no need for a white savior figure. Real life doesn’t play out that way.
“Moonlight” is a work of art that is about something. Many important things.
It absolutely deserves to win best picture.
Shawn Edwards reviews films for WDAF-TV Fox 4 in Kansas City.