Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Ten

#10 — Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Part of the progression of cinema during the twenty-tens involved an ongoing discussion — and corresponding recalibration — of who gets to tell which stories. Cultural appropriation wasn’t an entirely novel concept ahead of the ten-year span, but it took hold with greater thoroughness. In the most significant, welcome result, the added mindfulness helped shift the demographics of who was getting to tell big-screen stories in the first place. To the degree that every filmmaker, no matter their background, was weighing the considerations about which parts of narrative were clearly their own and which parts would benefit from seeking the counsel of others, the whole of cinema improved. When Roger Ebert coined the famous term “empathy machine,” he was primarily referring to the magical way movies can instill greater understanding of others in the viewer. But the best filmmakers, I believe, can also clearly, potently generate their own empathy in the process of plying their trade.

Moonlight is not Barry Jenkins’s story, but it sure feels like it is. It belongs first to Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which provided the source for the adaptation by Jenkins. Tracing the journey of a Black male across three different distinct points in his life, the film carries the unmistakably tang of autobiographical truth. It is fiction with the framework of memoir and confession. Charged with the common experience of defining one’s self, Chiron (played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as a grown man by Trevante Rhodes) finds the process complicated by his attraction to other males. Depicted as an almost insurmountable taboo in the communities where Chiron dwells, the beautiful instinct to seek out romantic companionship takes on the heavy ache of tragedy. Through much of Moonlight, Chiron feels destined to never come into his full self because of cruel-hearted rules imposed on him by a society that pre-judges him, cavalierly setting boundaries. The relentless message is about who he can’t be.

Jenkins acknowledged there were parts of Chiron’s story he didn’t know firsthand, and he relied on McRaney to verify the accuracy. But the art makes clear that Jenkins also recognizes where his experience overlaps, and he wrangles the commonality into poignant poetry. Growing up Black in Miami, Jenkins clearly knew the lines society drew and the ways in which he was told, implicitly and explicitly, that he could only travel so far in the direction of his dreams. He lived part of Chiron’s story, and he saw the rest. And Jenkins shares his knowledge with astonishing visual elegance and deep reservoirs of emotion. When Chiron is in pain, it comes through the screen like radiation. And when he has moments when the light of possibility sneaks through the walls he’s constructed to keep himself safe, the sensation is equally vivid.

There are great performances throughout the film. All three actors who play Chiron are strong, and there are stellar supporting turns by Naomie Harris (as Chiron’s mother, burdened by addiction and left to feel discarded in her own way) and Mahershala Ali (as a drug dealer who proves to be a generous mentor to Chiron). The movie’s resonance, though, is mostly due to the precision and care of Jenkins and his collaborators, led by cinematographer James Laxton and editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon. In their hands, Moonlight is a paragon of craft, redefining what film can do simply by doing everything at close to the pinnacle of the form. It’s as if Jenkins was respectful of the responsibility of rendering the parts of Moonlight that required learning and empathy, and he set out to earn that responsibility by treating it with the utmost care. And in the end, it’s inconceivable that any other individual could have told the story better.

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