Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves to win the best picture Oscar

Film Critic

“Moonlight” deserves to win the Oscar for best picture.

That may be a crass, clunky thing to say about one of the least self-important American films in recent memory, but then not all truths can be conveyed as gracefully and eloquently as they are in director Barry Jenkins’ beautiful movie.

So at the risk of bluntness, it bears repeating: “Moonlight” deserves to win the Oscar for best picture.

This is not an opinion that will cause much consternation among critics, many of whom have hailed Jenkins’ film as the year’s best. But it may come as a surprise to those who don’t see the greatness in a lyrical, intimate portrait of a black boy named Chiron whose early years in Miami are shaped by his crack-addicted mother, a drug-dealing father figure and a childhood best friend who becomes his first love.

It sounds, on paper, like the sort of eminently worthy, socially responsible indie drama we see often at festivals like Sundance and Toronto, where low-key, downbeat slices of life are assumed to be a dime a dozen. (“Moonlight” premiered at Telluride and Toronto last fall.)

In truth, we aren’t used to seeing movies as boldly, intelligently specific in their concerns as “Moonlight,” and we certainly aren’t used to seeing them done this well.

“Moonlight” reminds us that the pursuit of truth and beauty in art . . . will always have an inescapable and intrinsically political dimension.

Freely adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins works in a style that is both modest and rarefied. With a sensual palette deeply informed by the work of world-cinema titans like Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien and especially Wong Kar-wai, the director draws out Chiron’s inner life on screen in all its roiling emotional intensity, as well as its moments of quiet, anguished introspection.

Chiron is played at three different life stages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, all of whom seem to breathe on screen as one.  In each chapter the movie takes one of Chiron’s most significant traits — his silence — and internalizes it, channeling into something turbulent and expressive. The exquisite formalism, far from being an art-cinema affectation, expresses all the repressed thoughts and desires that Chiron himself cannot.

“Moonlight” is a movie about poverty, blackness, masculinity and homosexuality: Each one exerts a powerful pull on Chiron’s identity but does not, in the end, lay exclusive claim to it. This is a movie that sees people whole. It has little use for the easy narrative trajectories — rise and fall, triumph and defeat — with which a more conventional character study might have resolved itself.

“Moonlight” doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t treat its protagonist’s identity as a problem in need of a solution. Chiron does not emerge triumphant from the streets or the closet by movie’s end. Nor does he score the kind of moral victory over racist oppression that would throw his struggle into high relief. The movie grants him nothing but the full measure of his humanity, and miraculously that’s enough.

How do you persuade award voters to see the greatness of a movie that never insists on its greatness?  After all, a similarly unassuming coming-of-age masterpiece, “Boyhood” (2014) — which, like “Moonlight,” had the maturity to simply let its protagonist be — was  eclipsed at the Oscars by the showier, ostensibly weightier “Birdman.” 

Unlike “Boyhood,” of course, “Moonlight” is about people of color, LGBT people, the urban poor and the dispossessed.  It has a bracing sociopolitical currency that could hardly feel more important than it does now. In the weeks before and after the presidential election I found my thoughts returning again and again to “Moonlight,” for reasons that have less to do with its demographics than with its temperament (to use a word thrown around a lot during campaign season).

‘Moonlight’ doesn’t deserve to win the Oscar simply because it would be the most politically resonant choice. Topicality is a lousy reason to give an award.

In its bottomless empathy and compassion, Jenkins’ movie strikes me as the wisest possible rejoinder to the bluster and hostility, the blasts of toxic masculinity and racist invective, that have taken the place of grounded, principled discourse in this country. And it accomplishes this not by hoisting the cinematic equivalent of a megaphone but through its patience, tenderness and unerring emotional truth.

Make no mistake: “Moonlight” doesn’t deserve to win the Oscar simply because it would be the most politically resonant choice. Topicality is a lousy reason to give a merit-based prize, especially because the best winners in Oscar history are those that have transcended their specific moment. (There’s a reason we revere “The Godfather” and “All About Eve” more than, say, “Gentleman’s Agreement.”)

And yet there absolutely is a political reason to honor “Moonlight,” and it has nothing to do with being on-message or avoiding another #OscarSoWhite, and everything to do with that tricky, still-uncharted territory where questions of artistry and representation converge.

The power of “Moonlight,” the reason it hits us with the force and clarity of revelation, is inextricable from the fact that what the movie is about — black bodies and souls in conflict, in harmony, in stasis, in motion, in extremis, in love — is something we don’t see nearly as often as we should in American mainstream cinema. The movie draws its intensity of feeling, in no small part, from the very rarity of the images it’s showing us.

That’s why even some of the praise for Jenkins’ movie, peddling the usual Oscar-friendly bromides about what a universal story it is, feels so inadequate. “Moonlight” reconciles a lot of opposites — it’s an art movie and an audience movie, for one — but calling it universal smacks of desperation, as if people were trying to tame into submission something that they don’t fully understand.

“Moonlight” reminds us that the pursuit of truth and beauty in art — the desire for aesthetic, intellectual and emotional experiences that feel urgent and revelatory — will always have an inescapable and intrinsically political dimension. It will always lead us down avenues of human experience that we either think we know better than we do, or never thought to venture down in the first place.

“Moonlight” is not, of course, the only recent movie that reminds us of this. One of the more consistent trends in this year’s best picture race is that almost every nominee engages the notion of otherness, telling a story predicated on an attempt, successful or not, to bridge a cultural divide.

Denis Villeneuve’s moving and cerebral science-fiction drama “Arrival” is about the necessity of international (and intergalactic) cooperation, as well as the grave danger of living in ignorance and fear of the unknown. David Mackenzie’s tense, gripping Texan thriller “Hell or High Water” opens a window onto the seething anger of white, working-class Americans who felt cheated twice over, first by Wall Street and then their own government.

Mel Gibson’s faith-forward World War II epic “Hacksaw Ridge” sets up two compelling cultural divisions — between American and Japanese soldiers, and also between violence and pacifism. Garth Davis’ “Lion” is a straightforward but affecting treatment of an astonishing real-life story of cross-cultural adoption and homecoming; its distributor has shamelessly tried to position it as a rebuke of President Trump’s anti-refugee policies.

Mahershala Ali, left, and Alex Hibbert in “Moonlight.” (David Bornfriend / Associated Press)

Both Denzel Washington’s solid “Fences” and Kenneth Lonergan’s superior “Manchester by the Sea” tell working-class family stories, blazingly acted and laced with piercing tragedy and bitter humor. While one follows a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh, the other a white family in present-day New England, both are marked by a powerful sense of isolation: These are people who have taken refuge in their own communities and, for better and for worse, paid a price for their insularity.

The most rousing nominee — and potentially even more of a best picture spoiler than “Moonlight” — is “Hidden Figures,” Theodore Melfi’s drama about the black female mathematicians who made their mark on NASA during the 1960s space race. The filmmaking and the emotional arithmetic may be a bit tidy, but the potency of the drama is unmistakable, as is the acuity with which it illuminates eternally relevant issues of discrimination over race and gender.

And then, of course, there’s Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land,” which has been the dominant favorite for months now and which is set to pull off the kind of Oscar-night sweep we haven’t seen in a while — the kind that feels less like a celebration than a coronation. It has the requisite commercial support and industry affection on its side, and it also does what recent winners like “The Artist” (2011), “Argo” (2012) and “Birdman” (2014) have done, which is shine a highly flattering light on the entertainment industry.

I have no desire to add to the many essays that have tried to take down “La La Land,” a lovely, often entrancing movie that I think falls just short of greatness — and is, if anything, all the more endearing for it. That the film’s own racial dynamics feel under-examined — from its selective sampling of L.A.’s ethnic diversity to its whitesplaining attitude toward jazz — is worthy of criticism, just as its infectious throwback to the classic musicals of yesteryear deserves legitimate praise.

The choice between “La La Land” and “Moonlight” has been framed as a choice between various opposites: whiteness and blackness, fantasy and reality, naivete and wisdom, appropriation and authenticity. But in the spirit of a less hostile, less Trumpian awards season, I’d suggest that these two fine movies, far from being natural adversaries, are in fact worthy companion pieces.

Both movies were directed by smart young talents who are steeped in film history and who wear their artistic inspirations on their sleeves. Both are love stories that recall the emotional sweep of great Hollywood romances, only to end on a distinctly modern and melancholy note. Both are about young people tentatively finding out who they are, and if Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) clearly enjoy a level of freedom and privilege that Chiron does not, their struggles and aspirations are presented with no less honesty, vulnerability and tenderness of feeling.

Both films are invested in the notion that honesty and personal experience are the basis for great art — the difference being that while one film presents this as a lofty ideal, the other one actually puts it into practice. Toward the end of “La La Land,” Mia writes and performs a one-woman show, then makes her big-screen debut in a movie tailored to her specifications, a movie that reshapes her life story into something indelible and real.

But probably not as indelible and real, I suspect, as “Moonlight.”

More about “Moonlight” . . .

WATCH: Kenneth Turan's review of "Moonlight"
WATCH: "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins
WATCH: Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" inspired the film "Moonlight."
WATCH: Oscar nominees Mahershala Ali of "Moonlight" and Dev Patel of "Lion" share their thoughts about the current political climate.
WATCH: Naomie Harris describes a key scene in "Moonlight."


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