“Moonlight, the remarkable new film by Barry Jenkins, who directed the gentle romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (2008), revels in the elevation of everyday experience, transforming time’s passing into a series of rites of passage, the commonplace into the iconic,” writes Farihah Zaman for Film Comment. “These are the kinds of moments and images that critics love to champion as ‘universal,’ but in practice this particular universe tends to belong on screen to the white, straight middle class. With self-assured elegance, Moonlight takes back these shared points of human experience so that they might also reside in black communities and be borne out by black bodies, in a time when such depictions are still rare in independent cinema. Moonlight isn’t just a very good film, though it is in fact that. It is a necessary film for this moment in time, when the extinguishing of black men of all backgrounds, out of fear, becomes more visible—and less acceptable—to the general public.”
Moonlight “depicts a young man’s coming of age while facing the possibility of being gay, a classic story told in new ways that do more than avoid clichés—they shatter cinematic stereotypes,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The film, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, shows three episodes in the life of the Miami-born Chiron, starting when the bullied schoolboy (Alex R. Hibbert), neglected by his mother (Naomie Harris), is sheltered by a Cuban-born drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe), while his friendship with a classmate named Kevin deepens. Jenkins burrows deep into his characters’ lives and minds with a granular precision, conjured with urgent performances, frank dialogue, and a repertory of tense closeups and hyperkinetic swoops, scalding light and deep darkness, that render Chiron’s world with as much psychological as geographical specificity.”
“Unfortunately, Jenkins is prone to over-directing,” finds Sam C. Mac at Slant. “What tends to right Moonlight, even when Jenkins’s filmmaking drifts into indulgence, is the strength of its performers. Sanders and Roades’s Chirons in particular bring so much nuance to a part that would seem to have little inherently built into it; both actors develop shades of introversion and reflexively projected self-confidence to give the character a movingly damaged sense of black masculinity.”
“There’s a rare authenticity to every element,” finds Howard Feinstein in Filmmaker, “from characterizations to strangely seductive brightly painted buildings dwarfed by the large open spaces to the nasty intimidation of the physically weak by the stronger guys who’ve sadly adjusted well to the value system in place. Twisted Social Darwinism.”
“Boasting an overwhelmingly powerful final third layered with past tragedies and future possibilities, Moonlight is transcendent even of its considerable parts, its sum a portrait of aching humanism,” writes Luke Gorham at In Review Online.
For the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, Moonlight is “a testament to the unique and durable power of the movies to elevate—even to consecrate—the human imagination.” The Voice‘s Bilge Ebiri finds that “it’s questioning, patient tone reflects the relatively understated quality of the awards-season hopefuls in this year’s [NYFF] lineup.” Earlier: Reviews from Telluride and Toronto.
“One of the things that jump forward is the tactility and sensuality of the world you evoke,” Paul Dallas tells Jenkins in Brooklyn Magazine. “I think some of Claire Denis’s films do that.” Jenkins: “She’s my favorite filmmaker. I would say, if there’s any film that’s a one-to-one influence on this film, it would be Beau Travail for sure. It’s funny you mention tactile. I think of Claire as a ‘nuts and bolts’ filmmaker. There are no crazy transitions in her work. They are very clear-eyed, concrete images. And yet, she arrives at this level of metaphor that other filmmakers just aren’t capable of. Her films are very human examples of sensuality. I think Miami has a lot of that feeling, [which] was something the cinematographer and I wanted to communicate. Also, I didn’t want to make a movie about sexuality and gay, black men and not have it be sensual. That would have been antithetical to the point of the film.”
“What about the film has a sense of home for you?” asks Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold. Jenkins: “I grew up a block away from the apartment in the film. And then some of the voices, and the way people’s skin is always shiny—we told the makeup guy: no powder, we need sheen. But the main thing is the mom character, played by Naomie Harris. The playwright Tarell McCraney wrote the source material, like 40-45 pages, non-linear. It jumped back and forth in time, like halfway between the screen and the stage. And when I read it I immediately thought: this is a film. I did not know Tarell growing up, but we grew up literally a block from each other. We went to the same elementary school, and both his mom and my mom lived through that horrible crack cocaine addiction. And there isn’t a scene with her that didn’t happen to either myself or Tarell. It’s talking about things that I’ve always wanted to talk about. And it was freeing because it’s really difficult to do an autobiography, to put your own shit up on the screen.”
Update, 10/4: For Jon Dieringer at Screen Slate, the third act “is virtually an extended scene of personal and romantic reckoning. It’s a structural gambit that didn’t entirely pay off for me—in part because Trevante Rhodes’s adult incarnation of Chiron doesn’t quite reach the bar set by the miraculous performances of Hibbert and Sanders—but the deeply felt and deftly rendered impression of Moonlight lingers.”
Update, 10/7: “Despite Moonlight’s low-key intimacy, Jenkins has set out to make a Big Film,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “Moonlight meets that ambition, and then some, with a grace and compassion that shine out from its core.”
Updates, 10/18: “Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s brilliant, achingly alive new work about black queerness?” asks Hilton Als in the New Yorker. “Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and aids, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace?… Directors such as Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien explored gay black masculinity in the 90s, but they did so in essay films, which allowed the audience a kind of built-in distance. Of course, no one in the nineties wanted to finance films about gay black men. Twenty years later, I still don’t know how Jenkins got this flick made. But he did. And it changes everything.”
“There are opportunities in this story to digress into protest mode,” notes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “Jenkins resists them. In some scenes, principally those between the protagonist and his mother, there are also opportunities for melodrama, which Jenkins is willing to exploit, just a little. Mostly, he keeps you immersed in one young man’s moment-by-moment sensations and emotions. That’s a lot; and in the long, quiet, intensely moving scene of reunion and reconciliation between Black and Kevin that brings Moonlight to its culmination, it’s all you could want.”
Listening (7’10”). Mandalit del Barco talks with the cast and crew for NPR.
Updates, 10/24: “Only after I had seen Moonlight for the third time—and only after a European acquaintance pointed it out to me—did I notice the almost complete absence of white people from the movie,” writes the NYT‘s A.O. Scott. “I don’t bring this up to suggest that the movie or my admiration for it in any way ‘transcends’ race. Nor do I want to damn this film, so richly evocative of South Florida that it raises the humidity in the theater, with the faint praise of universalism. To insist that stories about poor, oppressed, or otherwise marginal groups of people are really about everyone can be a way of denying their specificity. The universe is far too granular and far too vast for any one of us to comprehend, and Mr. Jenkins is far too disciplined a filmmaker to turn his characters into symbols.”
For Reverse Shot co-editor Michael Koresky, “this is a film that resonates in our culture and moment not because it was manufactured to matter, but because in its every breath it has clearly stayed true to itself. This is all we should ask of film.”
For MTV News, Ira Madison III addresses the point at which “the story Moonlight tackles becomes bold. For white queer narratives, there’s a sense of wanting to belong in the white heteronormative world that oppresses them. Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain want to live in isolation together, alone with their winters, herding sheep. Russell in Weekend has to confront his fear of public displays of affection. The entire series of Looking is a surrogate for the marriage equality movement—its goal was to show that gay men could be just as mundane as heterosexual ones. But for black queer narratives, there’s not only the struggle of accepting your queer identity, but also navigating a world that has little use for the black body.”
“I know that so much of my projected maleness in the world was born from fear,” writes Aaron Stewart-Ahn at the Talkhouse Film. “Moonlight has a bravery I’m in awe of, because it’s fearless about recognizing that, about reversing the course of cinema so that masculinity can be vulnerability, dream-state reverie, lost memories, regret, and the construction of barriers and longing. It’s a negative space in cinema, an absence, a frontier.”
At Slate, Aisha Harris considers the ways that Medicine for Melancholy “shares strands of DNA with its successor—particularly the way in which it taps into its characters’ needs and desires to connect with another person, to feel.”
“When I think of this film and what it’s meant to me,” writes Jenkins in a piece for Landmark Theatres, “I think most of that first semester of film school and how my voice was stifled by a lack of craft; I think proudly of the work these fifteen years since and the realization of my filmmaking voice as presented in Moonlight.”
Interviews with Jenkins: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture), Ashley Clark (Vice), David Fear (Rolling Stone), Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Eric Kohn (Indiewire), and Esther Zuckerman (AV Club). And you can listen to Jenkins and McCraney talking at the NYFF on the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s podcast, The Close-Up (58’30”).
Updates, 10/29: For the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, Moonlight is “one of the most emotionally ample and comprehensively created movies I’ve seen recently…. Jenkins creates a film with a sense of what James Gray calls ‘architecture,’ with which the director keeps the many elements of the story—and, even more, of his complex and manifold responses to it—in a balance that highlights its many strands individually even as he interweaves them contrapuntally. It’s as much a marvel of observation as of ideas, of substance as of style, of intimacy as of reserve. Even though it comes near the beginning of Jenkins’s career, it feels like the fulfillment of an inner world that has been under pressure within him for a very long time.”
“Its strongest scenes are practically burned into my brain,” writes Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail. “I can close my eyes and replay moments like the encounter between the two teenage boys on the beach, and the final conversation in the kitchen, as if I were reciting lines from a poem I memorized.”
For MTV’s Amy Nicholson, “Moonlight feels like a rebuke to every script that doesn’t see the humanity in a young black man. And it’s not only our films. It’s every politician and cop, and if audiences are brave enough to hear it, maybe ourselves, too.”
Peter Howell talks with Jenkins for the Toronto Star: “‘I wanted to make a point that Moonlight is rooted in a place, a place where I’m from and that it was going to be in the voice of a neighborhood I grew up in. It features the kind of characters that I knew growing up, people that I saw in the neighborhood. We were not going to code-switch.’ As an example of the latter, he points out how a previous interviewer had commented that the movie hinges on the line ‘Who are you?’ ‘No, no, no!’ Jenkins told him. ‘You just code-switched! The character actually says, “Who is you?,” because that’s the voice of where I’m from. I feel like, aesthetically, the code doesn’t switch in Moonlight.'”
Jenkins is also Aisha Harris‘s guest on Slate‘s Represent (59’32”).
Update, 11/1: Michael Smith talks with Jenkins for Time Out Chicago: “I’d say 75% of the film we planned out and we knew. And the other 25%, that was like, ‘Go with God.’ The swimming scene? It was like, ‘Go with God.'”
Updates, 11/5: For Larry Mizell Jr., writing for the Stranger, “Moonlight pulses with subtle, lived-in details that may just feel like breathing memory to a whole generation of African Americans—the vividness of these fragments were just some of the ways that Jenkins and his exemplary cast flouted expectations.”
“From its very first moments, Moonlight shatters a dozen racist clichés without fanfare,” adds Evan Moffitt, writing for frieze.
“I don’t want to deny the specificity of Moonlight,” writes Steve Erickson for the Nashville Scene, “though I think its tale of violence against difference, swaggering machismo, and emotional repression is ultimately an American story, not just an African-American one. Heard any ‘locker room talk’ lately? In fact, Moonlight could ring true in just about any culture where patriarchy reigns.”
Updates, 11/9: Adam Shatz for the Paris Review:
In daring not only to imagine black men in love, but to treat drug dealers with empathy, Moonlight embodies, more than any film yet, the sensibility of the Black Lives Matter generation. It rebels, moreover, against a black protest tradition in literature and film that has tended to depict the ghetto as an inferno in an effort to stir white compassion. The defining work of that tradition is Richard Wright’s Native Son, whose anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, strikes out blindly against the force of oppression, driven by inarticulate wrath. [James] Baldwin famously accused Wright of having created, in Bigger Thomas, an heir of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, a “continuation of … that monstrous legend it was written to destroy”: “The failure of the protest novel,” he continued, “lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” What makes Moonlight such a transcendent work is that it illuminates these invisible lives, beyond the categories that have blinded so many to their humanity and their beauty.
And from Marilyn Ferdinand: “The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion.”
Updates, 11/20: Moonlight “doesn’t so much follow a boy through the stages of his development as dropping us into the moments of his formation,” writes Francey Russell for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “These are the scenes that he will see his whole life, as memories or as nightmares or as blind repetition. In an interview, Alice Munro once said, ‘I just see people living in flashes.’ But there are also threads that run through the flashes, and in Moonlight, these threads are teachers.”
Fariha Róisín talks with Jenkins on the Yo Adrian podcast.
Updates, 12/14: New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that Jenkins has curated a series running from January 4 through 9. Illuminating Moonlight is “a selection of major works of queer, black, and international art cinema.”
“The film’s great strength is the way it confronts reality head-on, with cinematic beauty but no mythmaking,” writes A.S. Hamrah in n+1. “Palpably indebted to films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Terrence Malick, Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, nonetheless invent a Miami photography all their own, dark blue, yellow, and pink—then orange and brown when the film movies to Atlanta…. The immediate, massive, and overwhelming adulation that greeted Moonlight, praising it just for existing, left me a little skeptical.” Then he meets a self-described “Oscarologist” who tells him that Moonlight is “bad for gays, it’s bad for blacks, it perpetuates stereotypes with negative role models.” And: “Right then the film leaped in my estimation. If Moonlight was that upsetting to this guy, it had to be a masterpiece.”
“Less coming-of-age and more coming-into-being, the film complicates insufficient narratives of Black manhood that rely on whiteness, or valorize trauma as a triumph,” writes Vidal Wu in the TIFF Review. “At stake is more than the tired matter of representation; it’s a rare opportunity to forego white palatability and address Black men about their experiences and feelings, their capacity to harm and to become.”
Update, 12/17: Matt Sandler for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
I grew up in Miami, about 15 minutes by car—and worlds away in terms of what we now pointedly but clumsily call privilege—from the neighborhoods Moonlight depicts. I am more or less exactly the same age as the filmmakers and their characters, and I know the history of the place rather well, not least because I went on to study and teach African-American culture at the university level. One simple way to put my response is to say that I have been waiting for this movie without knowing it was coming. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. Moonlight makes a swerve on the broad and compulsively historical clichés that usually frame American filmmaking about Black people by being more historical, by looking so closely that a new kind of filmic history emerges. Hilton Als notes in his lovely review that the film resists Hollywood’s tendency to what he calls “Negro hyperbole.” Indeed, Moonlight’s sublimity (and it is sublime) depends on the specificity of its setting in a city at once typical of US race relations in the age of neoliberalism and particular as a site of transnational, African diasporic, and queer utopian dreaming.
Update, 12/19: “I’ll go out on a limb here,” Michael Smith tells Jenkins at Time Out. “A film it reminded me of was Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There.” Jenkins: “Oh yeah, it’s awesome…. The first time that’s ever come up, for sure…. I think, intellectually, what Todd was doing is very different than, intellectually, what we were trying to do but they end up at the same place. Yeah, I’m so damn glad that nobody reminded me that we were doing kind of the same thing because I would’ve had a hard time: ‘Hey, what if a woman plays him in the third chapter?’ It would be the same film!”
Update, 12/21: “It would not be quite correct to say that the few films concerned with black lives to receive both wide distribution and critical praise in recent years have ignored such material conditions faced by the individuals and communities they’re depicting,” writes Phil Coldiron for CinemaScope. “Rather, poverty and oppression are often acknowledged quickly into drama, so that a singularly able hero might transcend it or suffer it nobly or more productively as the means for analyzing some relationship of power marked off by the distance of history. What is remarkable about Moonlight is that Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, another son of Liberty City, has crafted a film which has this place so deep in its bones that it strikes me as impossible to separate any aspect of its form from the context which produced it, and which is in turn reflected through the frame of its moving and fascinating central figure, Chiron.”
Update, 12/22: Writing for the Voice, Greg Tate suggests that “Moonlight‘s luminously dark and lovely palette mirrors the aesthetics of Miles Davis, a graphic and tonal conceptualist who long ago established the high bar for implosive, convulsive blues revelations drawn from Black America’s existential interior. As shot by DP James Laxton, Moonlight serves up a polychromatic bouquet of Milesian tension and restraint—especially in rendering how brothers love on those subvocal ‘lower’ frequencies Ralph Elli.