Perhaps an unexpected win for Best Picture sees Moonlight come to home video only two days after that shocking moment at the Oscars when La La Land was announced as the winner by mistake. But prior to the big win of the night, Moonlight had already brought home Oscars in two other categories: Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. The wins are huge achievements for black and LGBT cinema, particularly after last year’s “scandal” of minorities being snubbed, but the question is should Moonlight have been named Best Picture?
The plot is staged in three acts (which makes sense since the film is based on a stage play) which follow the character Chiron through three stages of his life: a child, a teen and an adult. The character is played by three different age appropriate actors with only Naomie Harris carrying through the film as Chiron’s mother. In the first act, “Little,” we first meet Chiron as he’s being chased by some other kids calling him “faggot.” He hides out in an abandoned apartment building until Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, finds the boy, gets him some food, takes him to his own home where he meets Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) before being taken to his own home. His mother seems concerned and caring but we quickly realize she is a junkie who only cares about her next fix. Juan and Teresa quickly become Chiron’s parent figures.
The second act, “Chiron,” jumps eight years and finds the boy in high school, still trying to figure out who he is, and finding a potential kindred soul in his friend Kevin after an encounter on the beach (the film takes place in Miami). But Kevin is bullied by classmate Terrel into giving Chiron a savage beating, and instead of pressing charges, Chiron takes matters into his own hands, leading to his arrest and (we assume) incarceration.
Act III, “Black” (the nickname Kevin had given him as teens), finds Chiron an adult another eight years later, apparently following in the footsteps of his mentor Juan (who we never see after Act I) now relocated to Atlanta. Chiron’s mother is now in a rehab facility and trying to make amends, but it’s a call out of the blue from Kevin (now played by American Horror Story: Roanaoke‘s André Holland) that brings up old feelings in Chiron, so much so that he makes a trip from Atlanta back to Miami to catch up with his old friend and possibly finally find himself in the process.
Moonlight is a “small” movie, certainly not a Hollywood blockbuster nor the type of film that generally wins Best Picture at the Oscars. The film has been hailed as a major achievement in queer and black cinema for its universal message of tolerance and acceptance. For me, the film was just okay. I did not have the emotional connection that others seem to have and I certainly don’t agree that it deserved the Best Picture Oscar. Forgive my blasphemy. It’s a well-made and well-acted film, but I just feel like I missed something, or perhaps I was a victim of the film being over-hyped. It just didn’t click with me.
That’s not to take anything away from its achievements however. The three actors portraying Chiron — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — are all excellent, using facial expressions and body language more than words to convey everything Chiron is feeling. Any one of them could (should) have been up for the Supporting Actor Oscar. Naomie Harris is also terrific as Paula, a role filmed over the course of three days. She goes from caring mom to jonesing junkie to an older woman trying to hold herself accountable with an honest progression, and she’s always riveting when she’s on screen. Her nomination for Supporting Actress was well-deserved.
And then there is Best Supporting Actor winner Mehershala Ali, who has less than ten minutes of screen time and disappears after the first act (although Monáe does have one more scene with the teen Chiron). Ali is a fine actor with an impressive resumé, including House of Cards, the last two The Hunger Games movies and the upcoming Luke Cage series to his credit. As Juan, he also gives a fine performance but it’s nothing groundbreaking. Perhaps the category this year was just weak overall, but I’m not sure Ali deserved the win. I hate to sound like a hater, and I’m not taking anything away from his work. He’s fine, but the role just isn’t that great. The character really should have been in the second act of the film to really help explain teen Chiron’s progression to adult Black.
The new Blu-ray release of Moonlight shows off the film to its best advantage in a crisp, clear, colorful high def presentation. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is very robust, keeping the voices front and center and affording the surround speakers a lot of action with music and ambient sound effects to completely immerse the viewer in the environment. While not a fault of the disk’s audio presentation, I did find myself turning on the subtitles near the end because I had a hard time understanding some of the dialog, more a performance/directorial issue than anything else.
The Blu-ray also features several extras:
- Audio commentary with director Barry Jenkins – This commentary features Jenkins solo, giving scene specific details about the making of the film, the actors, his process, the technical process, and in-depth information about the story. Watching the film again with the commentary gave me a much more deeper appreciation for the story, and the film as a whole, than I had just watching the movie itself. This is what a film commentary should be.
- ?Ensemble of Emotion: Making Moonlight (21:37) – The director, producers and cast talk about the process of making the movie and how they drew on their own experiences. Interestingly, the three actors playing Chiron never met during the filming.
- Poetry Through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight (10:06) – Nicholas Britell speaks about the process of creating the film’s music, and how the process of hip hop was applied to a classic orchestral score.
- Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami (5:39) – Director Barry Jenkins and the producers talk about filming in the city that inspired the story, and how Jenkins strove to use locals in the cast.
Moonlight is definitely worth a watch, especially now with its Oscar wins, but do make sure to give yourself time to re-watch with the director’s commentary to get even more out of the movie. The film is also available on DVD and Digital HD.
Lionsgate generously provided Hotchka with a Blu-ray copy of the film for reviewing purposes.