ⓘ Moonlight (2016 film)
Moonlight is a 2016 American coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraneys unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It stars Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali.
The film presents three stages in the life of the main character: his youth, adolescence, and early adult life. It explores the difficulties he faces with his sexuality and identity, including the physical and emotional abuse he endures growing up. Filmed in Miami, Florida, beginning in 2015, Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016. Distributed by A24, the film was released in the United States on October 21, 2016, and grossed over $65 million worldwide.
Moonlight received critical acclaim and is commonly cited as one of the best films of the 21st century. The film won several accolades, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with Best Supporting Actor for Ali and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and McCraney from a total of eight nominations. It became the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBTQ-related film, and the second-lowest-grossing film domestically behind The Hurt Locker to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated for an editing Oscar, and Ali became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar.
1.1. Plot i. Little
In Liberty City, Miami, Afro-Cuban drug dealer Juan finds Chiron, a withdrawn child who goes by the nickname "Little," hiding from a group of bullies in a crackhouse. Juan lets Chiron spend the night with him and his girlfriend Teresa before returning Chiron to his mother Paula, who subsequently grounds him from watching TV for worrying her. Chiron continues to spend time with Juan, who teaches him how to swim and advises him, telling him he can choose his own path in life.
One night, Juan encounters Paula smoking crack with one of his customers. Juan berates her for her addiction and neglecting her son, but she rebukes him for selling crack to her in the first place, all the while they argue over Chirons upbringing. She implies that she knows why Chiron gets tormented by his peers, alluding to "the way he walks," before going home and taking out frustrations on Chiron. The next day, Chiron admits to Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother and asks what a "faggot" is. Juan tells him it is "a word used to make gay people feel bad." He tells Chiron there is nothing wrong with being gay and that he should not allow others to mock him. After asking Juan whether he sold drugs to Paula, Chiron leaves as Juan appears distraught and remorseful for his actions.
1.2. Plot ii. Chiron
Now a teenager, Chiron juggles avoiding school bully Terrel and spending time with Teresa, who has lived alone since Juans death. Paula, who has turned to prostitution after the worsening of her addiction, forces Chiron to give her the money he receives from Teresa. Chirons childhood friend Kevin tells him about a detention he received for being caught having sex with a girl in a school stairwell, and Chiron later dreams about Kevin and the girl having sex in Teresas back yard, waking with a start. One night, Kevin visits Chiron at the beach near his house. While smoking a blunt together, the two discuss their ambitions and the nickname Kevin gave Chiron when they were children. They kiss, and Kevin gives Chiron a handjob.
The next morning, Terrel manipulates Kevin into participating in a hazing ritual. Kevin reluctantly punches Chiron until he is unable to stand before watching as Terrel and other boys savagely attack him. When the principal urges him to reveal his attackers identities, Chiron, not wanting to turn Kevin in, refuses, stating that reporting them will not solve anything. The next day, an enraged Chiron walks into class and smashes a chair over Terrels head. The police arrive and arrest Chiron for assault, and he is sent to juvenile hall.
1.3. Plot iii. Black
Now going by the nickname "Black," an adult Chiron is released from prison and deals drugs in Atlanta. He receives frequent calls from Paula, who asks him to visit her at the drug treatment center where she now lives. One day, he receives a call from Kevin, who invites him to visit him should he decide to come to Miami. While visiting Paula, Chiron breaks his silence. His mother, seeing the errors of her ways, proceeds to apologize for not loving him when he needed it most and tells him she loves him even if he does not love her back. Eventually, the two of them tearfully reconcile before Paula lets her son go.
Chiron travels to Miami and reunites with Kevin, who now works at a diner. When his attempts to probe Chiron about his life result in silence, Kevin tells him hes had a child with an ex-girlfriend and, although the relationship ended, he is fulfilled by his role as a father. Chiron reciprocates by talking about his unexpected drug dealing, proceeds to ask Kevin why he called, to which Kevin plays a song on the jukebox that made him think of Chiron. After Kevin serves Chiron dinner, the two of them go to his apartment. Kevin tells Chiron that he is happy despite the fact that his life didnt turn out as he had hoped, resulting in Chiron breaking down and admitting that he has not been intimate with anybody since their encounter years ago and since his arrest. As Kevin comforts him, Black remembers himself as Little, standing on a beach in the moonlight.
- Chiron Harris shy- ROHN, the films protagonist
- Ashton Sanders as Teen Chiron
- Trevante Rhodes as Adult Chiron / "Black" nickname given by Kevin when he was a teen
- Alex Hibbert as Child Chiron / "Little"
- Kevin Jones, Chirons closest friend
- Andre Holland as Adult Kevin
- Jaden Piner as Child Kevin
- Jharrel Jerome as Teen Kevin
- Patrick Decile as Terrel, a school bully
- Naomie Harris as Paula, Chirons mother
- Janelle Monae as Teresa, Juans girlfriend
- Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron
3.1. Production Development
In 2003, Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote the semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to cope with his mothers death from AIDS. The theater piece was shelved for about a decade before it served as the basis for Moonlight.
After the release of his debut feature film Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, Barry Jenkins wrote various screenplays, none of which entered production. In January 2013, producer Adele Romanski urged Jenkins to make a second film. The two brainstormed a few times a month through video-chat, with the goal of producing a low-budget "cinematic and personal" film. Jenkins was introduced to McCraneys play through the Borscht arts collective in Miami. After discussions with McCraney, Jenkins wrote the first draft of the film in a month-long visit to Brussels.
Although the original play contained three parts, they ran simultaneously so that the audience would experience a day in the life of Little, Chiron and Black concurrently. In fact, it is not made clear that the characters are the same person until halfway through the play. Jenkins instead chose to split the three parts of the original piece into distinct chapters and to focus on Chirons story from the perspective of an ally.
The result was a screenplay that reflected the similar upbringings of Jenkins and McCraney. The character Juan was based on the father of McCraneys brother, who was also a childhood "defender" of McCraney, as Juan was for Chiron. Likewise, Paula was a depiction of Jenkins and McCraneys mothers, who both struggled with drug addictions. McCraney and Jenkins also both grew up in Miamis Liberty Square, a primary location of the film.
Jenkins looked for financing for the film during 2013, finding success after sharing the script with the executives of Plan B Entertainment at the years Telluride Film Festival. Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B Entertainment became producers of the film, while A24 undertook to finance it and handle worldwide distribution, which marked the companys first production.
3.2. Production Casting
Different actors portrayed Chiron and Kevin in each chapter of the film. Ashton Sanders was cast in the role of teen Chiron. Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner were cast for the roles of child Chiron and child Kevin, respectively, in an open casting call in Miami. Trevante Rhodes originally auditioned for the role of Kevin, before he was cast as adult Chiron.
Andre Holland had previously acted in McCraneys plays, and had read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue a decade before the release of the film. Holland was attracted to the role of adult Kevin when later reading the script of the film, stating, up with a Juan". Janelle Monae was sent the script and immediately connected to her role as Teresa, commenting that she too had family members with similar struggles relating to drugs and sexual identity.
3.3. Production Filming
Filming began on October 14, 2015, in Miami, Florida. After scouting for locations in Miami with Romanski, Jenkins made an effort to film in locations where he previously lived. Liberty Square, a housing project located in the neighborhood of Liberty City, was chosen as one of the primary locations as both McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the area. The film was shot undisturbed since Jenkins had relatives living in the area, though the cast and crew had police escorts. Naomie Harris later reflected:
During filming, Jenkins made sure that the three actors for Chiron did not meet each other until after filming to avoid any imitations of one another. Consequently, Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert filmed in separate two-week periods. Mahershala Ali frequently flew to Miami on consecutive weekends to film during the production of other projects. Naomie Harris shot all of her scenes in three days without rehearsals, while Andre Holland filmed the totality of his scenes in five. The film was shot in a period of twenty-five days.
Jenkins worked with cinematographer and longtime friend James Laxton, who previously shot Medicine for Melancholy. The two chose to avoid the "documentary look" and thus shot the film using widescreen CinemaScope on an Arri Alexa digital camera, which better rendered skin tone. With colorist Alex Bickel, they further achieved this by creating a color grade that increased the contrast and saturation while preserving the detail and color. As a result, the three chapters of the film were designed to imitate different film stocks. The first chapter emulated the Fuji film stock to intensify the casts skin tones. The second chapter imitated the Agfa film stock, which added cyan to the images, while the third chapter used a modified Kodak film stock.
3.4. Production Editing
The film was edited in Los Angeles by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, former university schoolmates of Jenkins. Sanders was responsible for editing the first and second chapters. McMillon was responsible for the third act which included the "diner scene", a favorite of the cinematographer Laxton.
The score of Moonlight was composed by Nicholas Britell. Britell applied the chopped and screwed technique from hip hop remixes to orchestral music, producing a "fluid, bass-heavy score". The soundtrack, released on October 21, 2016, consists of eighteen original songs by Britell along with others by Goodie Mob, Boris Gardiner, and Barbara Lewis. A chopped and screwed version was released by OG Ron C and DJ Candlestick of The Chopstars.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, lists "love, sex, survival, mothers and father figures" among its themes, particularly the lack of a nurturing father. However, A. O. Scott of The New York Times cites the character Juan as an example of how the film "evokes cliches of African-American masculinity in order to shatter them." In his review in Variety, Peter Debruge suggests that the film demonstrates that the African American identity is more complex than has been portrayed in films of the past. For example, while Juan plays the role of Littles defender and protector, he is also part of the root cause of at least some of the hardship the young boy endures.
A major theme of Moonlight is the black male identity and its interactions with sexual identity. The film takes a form similar to a triptych in order to explore the path of a man from a neglected childhood, through an angry adolescence, to self-realization and fulfillment in adulthood.
This particular story of Chirons sexuality is also seen as a story of race in a post-Obama era. The film amalgamates art film with hood film in its portrayal of African-American characters on-screen. Many technical film techniques are employed to juxtapose the characters and action on scene, including the use of an orchestral score done in the melody of popular R&B and hip-hop motifs. This specifically deals with theme of recuperating identity, especially in terms of blackness. The characters operate in an urban working-class city in Florida but are portrayed through art house conventions to create a new space for black characters in cinema. This mirrors Chirons own odyssey to learning who he is, as he constantly struggles with trying to find some essentialism to his identity, yet consistently fails in doing so. The triptych structure helps to reiterate the fragmented personality to the film and Chiron.
5.1. Themes Black masculinity
The films co-writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, speaks on the topic of black masculinity in the film, explaining why Chiron went to such lengths to alter his persona. He argues that communities without privilege or power seek to gain it in other ways. He says one way in which males in such communities do this is by trying to enhance their masculine identity, knowing that it often provides a means to more social control in a patriarchal society.
In Moonlight, masculinity is portrayed as rigid and aggressive, amongst the behavior of young Black males in Chirons teenage peer group. The expression of hyper-masculinity among Black men has been associated with peer acceptance and community. Being a homosexual within the Black community, on the other hand, has been associated with social alienation and homophobic judgement by peers because Black gay men are seen as weak or effeminate. In the film, Chiron is placed in this divide as a Black gay man and alters his presentation of masculinity as a strategy to avoid ridicule because homosexuality is viewed as incompatible with Black masculine expectations. As young kids, Kevin hides his sexuality in order to avoid being singled out like Chiron is. As Chiron grows older, he recognizes the need to conform to a heteronormative ideal of Black masculinity in order to avoid abuse and homophobia. As an adult, Chiron chooses to embrace the stereotypical Black male gender performance by becoming muscular and a drug-dealer.
Moonlight explores the effects of this felt powerlessness in black males. As McCraney explains, coping with this feeling often coincides with attempts to overstate ones masculinity, in a way that can easily become toxic. He says one unfortunate side effect of leaning into masculinity too much is that men no longer want to be "caressed, or nurtured, or gentle," which is why a character like Juan may be puzzling to some audiences. Chirons choice to value masculinity over the desire to be loved or caressed becomes evident in scenes like his first sexual encounter with Kevin. These ideas are related to Omiseeke Natasha Tinsleys essay "Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic," in which she claims that the slave ships of the middle passage may have allowed for the formulation of queer identities and relationships amongst the black men and women below deck. She argues the formulation of queer relationships was a method of resistance, providing love and comfort to black people when there should have been none. However, Chiron does not view the desire to form a homosexual bond as being compatible with his desire to claim his masculinity, and this false dichotomy is the source of much internal tension and strife in his character throughout the film.
5.2. Themes Intersection of blackness, masculinity, and vulnerability
Blackness, masculinity, and vulnerability are major focuses of this film. In the beach scene with Chiron, Juan, his father figure in the film, emphasizes the importance of black identity. Juan says, "There are black people everywhere. Remember that, okay? No place you can go in the world ain’t got no black people. We was the first on this planet." As Juan speaks about the relevance and importance of the black experience, he also thinks about a time in his youth when a stranger told him "in moonlight, black boys look blue." This is an image that the audience gets to see as the director, Barry Jenkins, supplies numerous shots of Chiron in the moonlight. It seems that Juan seems to associate this image with vulnerability, given that he tells Chiron that he eventually shed the nickname "Blue" in order to foster his own identity. The scenes depicting Chiron in the moonlight are almost always the ones in which hes vulnerable, his intimate night on the beach with Kevin included. Throughout the film, this dichotomy between black and blue stands in for that between tough and vulnerable, with the black body often hovering between the two. In Chirons situation, the black body, which can be seen as inherently vulnerable in American society, must be tough in order to survive, as seen by Chirons final, very masculine and dominant identity.
5.3. Themes Water
Water is often seen as cleansing and transformative and this is apparent in the film as well. Whether it be him swimming in the ocean or simply splashing water on his face, Chiron is constantly interacting with water. However, it is most notable that water is most often seen in the film in times of immense transition for Chiron. Throughout his life, Chiron resorts to water to bring him comfort e.g. taking baths when his mother is not home or swimming in the ocean with Juan. In the scene where Juan taught Little to swim, he explained to him the duality of water in relation to Black existence, a concept addressed in Omiseeke Natasha Tinsleys Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic. The ocean is like a crosscurrent as Tinsley says, that can simultaneously be a place of inequality and exploitation as well as beauty and resistance. Tinsley describes how, "black queerness itself becomes a crosscurrent through which to view hybrid, resistant subjectivities and perhaps, black queers really have no ancestry except the black water." The water, is either an environment that can destroy Chiron or allow him to triumph and throughout the movie we see Chiron using the water to cope and find himself.
The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016. It also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2016, the New York Film Festival on October 2, 2016, the BFI London Film Festival on October 6, 2016 and the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 7, 2016. The film was released to select theaters on October 21, 2016, before beginning a wide release on November 18, 2016. The full UK cinema release was on February 17, 2017.
6.1. Release Marketing
The films poster reflects its triptych structure, combining the three actors portraying Chiron into a single face. The producers employed no extra marketing for the film; interest in the film grew naturally up until the Academy Awards, induced by the critical reviews. The trailer for the film was released on August 11, 2016 in time for festival season. Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times referred to it "as one of the most anticipated films for fall".
On February 27, 2017, the day after the Academy Awards, Calvin Klein released an underwear advertising campaign featuring four of the male actors in the film. On March 7, 2017, Beijing-based streaming video service iQiyi announced that it has acquired the rights to stream the film in China. The film is also available in home media format through iTunes and DVD.
7.1. Reception Box office
Moonlight grossed $27.9 million in the United States and Canada and $37.5 million in other territories for a worldwide gross of $65.3 million, against a production budget of $4 million.
The film originally played in four theaters in its limited October 21, 2016 release, grossing $402.072 a per-theater average $100.519. The films theater count peaked at 650 in its wide opening on November 18, 2016, before expanding to 1.014 theaters in February. After the Oscars ceremony, A24 announced that the film would be played at 1.564 theaters. In the weekend following its Oscar wins the film grossed $2.5 million, up 260% from its previous week and marking the highest-grossing weekend of its entire theatrical release. It was also a higher gross than the previous two Best Picture winners, Spotlight $1.8 million and Birdman $1.9 million, had in their first weekend following the Academy Awards.
7.2. Reception Critical response
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 368 reviews, with an average rating of 8.99/10. The websites critical consensus reads, Moonlight uses one mans story to offer a remarkable and brilliantly crafted look at lives too rarely seen in cinema." On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 99 out of 100, based on 53 critics, indicating "universal acclaim." On both websites, it was the highest-scoring film released in 2016.
David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter wrote a positive review after Moonlight premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. He praised the actors performances and described the cinematography of James Laxton as "fluid and seductive, deceptively mellow, and shot through with searing compassion." Rooney concluded that the film "will strike plangent chords for anyone who has ever struggled with identity, or to find connections in a lonely world." In a uniformly positive review for Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf gave Moonlight five stars out of five and praised Barry Jenkins direction.
Brian Formo of Collider gave Moonlight an A− grade rating, applauding the performances and direction but contending that the film "is more personal and important than it is great." Similarly, Jake Cole of Slant Magazine praised the acting, but criticized the screenplay, and argued that "so much of the film feels old-hat." In a review for The Verge, Tasha Robinson lamented the plot details omitted between the films three acts, but wrote that "what does make it to the screen is unforgettable."
While discussing the film after its screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times described Moonlight as "achingly romantic and uncommonly wise," opining the film to be an early Oscar contender. Chang further wrote: a waspish response to other reviews."
Richard Brody of The New Yorker included Moonlight in his list of the best 27 films of the decade.
7.3. Reception Top ten lists
Moonlight was listed on numerous critics top ten lists for 2016.
7.4. Reception Accolades
At the 74th Golden Globe Awards, Moonlight received six nominations, the second highest of all film nominees. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, with additional nominations for five more: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Ali, Best Supporting Actress for Harris, Best Screenplay for Jenkins and Best Original Score for Britell.
Moonlight received four nominations at the 70th British Academy Film Awards: Best Film, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Original Screenplay.
Moonlight received eight nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, the second highest of all nominees, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Ali, Best Supporting Actress for Harris and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film won three awards: for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. At the ceremony, presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read La Land as the winner of Best Picture. Beatty later stated that he had mistakenly been given the duplicate Best Actress envelope, for which Emma Stone had won for her role in La Land several minutes prior. When the mistake was realized, La Land producer Jordan Horowitz came forward to announce Moonlight as the correct winner.
Because the films screenplay was based on a play that had not previously been produced or published, different awards have had different rules about whether it qualified in the original or adapted screenplay categories. It was classified as an original screenplay by both the Writers Guild of America Awards and the BAFTAs, but was ruled as an adapted screenplay according to Academy Award rules.
Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon were nominated for Best Film Editing, making McMillon the first black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination in film editing. It is also the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
7.5. Reception Cultural impact
The film is referenced in "Moonlight", a song from Jay-Zs studio album 4:44.