[Dir. Barry Jenkins]
[5 out of 5 stars]
MOONLIGHT is director Barry Jenkin's exquisite film about a young black boy growing up gay in Miami. It is told in three parts as a triptych: from childhood, to adolescence and finally adulthood. This movie is groundbreaking not just in subject matter but in the way it tells its story. I want to discuss something that struck me immediately in my first viewing: the lighting and the colours. In particular, the way black skin is photographed. Especially how their faces and bodies are depicted (unfortunately rare in cinema) with such grace and integrity and how this depiction extends to the queer experience.
The film is based on a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. They've shortened the title simply to MOONLIGHT but Jenkins retains the idea found in the original title in the beautiful way black bodies reflect light. I never really gave much thought about the challenges of lighting various skin tones for film and photography. In his book on race and culture, Richard Dyer argues that whiteness should be made strange. That white people should see themselves as particular people, like all other races do. "Other people are raced, we are just people" (1997 p1). Because they are perceived not as a race but as the norm, things are measured and judged based on and in relation to whiteness. A litmus test.
Richard Dyer then discusses the issue of lighting for the screen. The camera, as an image-capturing tool is designed with white skin in mind (see: Shirley cards) and the techniques and machinations used in image-making will take into account light skin first. This is further reinforced in techniques with make-up and lighting for the screen. It's a significant bias but it highlights the technical achievement in MOONLIGHT.
In this visually arresting film, the cinematography by James Laxton and the work of colourist Alex Bickel produce a cinematic luminosity that emit a radiance and beauty unique to dark bodies. Dark skin absorbs the light around them; they soak up the resplendency making it look like they are glowing within. When Juan (Mahershala Ali), who acts as a surrogate father, takes the young Chiron (played with great sensitivity by Alex R. Hibbert) for a swimming lesson at the beach, the palm trees around them glow with green. Their skin gets slightly tinged with this hue. It's as if they are constantly at one with environment around them. The image is more saturated which lends texture and nuance to their faces. The perspiration from the Miami heat makes the characters glisten under the sun. All the actors in the film are black and this offers the technicians the chance to light the actors in very specific ways and most significantly, without compromise which usually happens when black actors share the frame with lighter-skinned actors.
This is radical because even though the characters face the same problems we usually see in the media that affect African-American communities - it is literally seen under new light. Chiron's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) descends into drug addiction, getting worse as Chiron gets older. There's a head-on shot of her facing Chiron. She is screaming at him in slow-motion accompanied by Nicholas Brittle's dynamic score (at times tender and lyrical, other times monumental and orchestral) that mixes poetry with dread. The set is lit with bold, fluorescent colours of magenta and azure recalling the striking mise-en-scene of Wong Kar-Wai films. The film diverges into these sudden moments of dreamy representations of reality.
The situation is dire but the life that goes on within these circumstances need not be neverendingly harsh or ugly. The vicious cycle of drugs (Juan sells the drugs Chiron's mother buys) where the hand that feeds the family is the same one that tears it apart and the issue of mass incarcerations of black communities as well as the upholding of conventional masculinity upon black men all affect Chiron directly. But Barry Jenkins captures the harshness of reality at the same time as it highlights the small pockets of beauty that emerge from within it.
There's a moment in the film where Kevin, Chiron's best friend and love interest, talks about how a breeze can stop everyone in the neighbourhood. When all is quiet as everyone takes the moment to enjoy this simple pleasure. "It's like all you can hear is your own heartbeat", Chiron says. "It makes you want to cry it feels so good", Kevin replies. This conversation fittingly describes the quality of the film's aesthetic and emotional pleasures.
It is this idea of finding beauty in everyday or bleak situations that strengthen the visual language of the film. Films that depict harsh realities sometimes fail to show the joys and grace that exist alongside reality. MOONLIGHT is not that kind of film.
The bold lighting and saturated cinematography works in duality. The first, as discussed above is to do with skin colour. The other is the abstract association that recalls this kind of lighting and colouring with queer spaces and the experiences within them.
My most intimate and safest experiences, as a queer person, are remembered with saturations of bold, bright colours in dark, hidden spaces. Think of gay nightclubs, bars and bathhouses. I'm well aware there's a certain seediness attached to these urban environments but having frequented these queer spaces, it offers much more than just the promise of sex. It promises a sense of freedom no other space I inhabit can offer. In these spaces I shed the last residue of the mask of queerness I have to put on everyday to face the heterosexual world. In these spaces we are safe, and wholly ourselves. All our desires and lust and hunger hang on to our bare skin.
It's important for me to emphasise that no scene in MOONLIGHT takes place in these spaces but they take the bold, fluorescent gleam of queer spaces and places it within non-queer spaces. The scene at the beach where Chiron experiences his first sexual encounter with another man is tinted with hues of moonlight blue. It highlights their space of intimacy as a space of difference. A queer space entirely their own and theirs to treasure.
This sexual scene is not explicit. The camera frames only the most tender and memorable moments. A hand grasping the sand in ecstasy, for example. Or a head resting on a shoulder. Come to think of it, even if most of my own intimate memories take place in queer spaces under the same glow and light, I don't remember the explicit moments. I remember the shallow breaths I see on another man's collarbone, or the glisten of sweat on his forearm, or the gentle feeling of a hand caressing the back of my head as I look towards a mirror and see our entwined limbs bathed in bright red light.
This way of lighting is not unique to this film. It's shown in a number of other queer films. They often mark a moment of freedom. It is a reminder that it is our space. That's not to say any space that is tinged with the bright, bold colours are all queer but it is familiar and comforting. To me anyway.
Think of Almodovar’s films. Think of the scene in Sciamma's GIRLHOOD where they sing to Rihanna bathed in blue light. Or that encounter in Ford's A SINGLE MAN where the actors radiate with redness. Or in the many scenes of Dolan's HEARTBEATS. There's a mirror scene in MOONLIGHT where the film transitions from adolescent Chiron to adult Chiron. The lighting in the former is a strange greenish-blue, signifying a moment of uncertainty and pain in Chiron's life. In the latter, the same shot is employed this time with a more intense, assured tone of blue. Perhaps depicting Chiron's growing acceptance of his sexuality.
It's probably why the queer flag is a rainbow. I feel like I hold these orbs of colourful light I’m sometimes too afraid to let out and only do so in queer spaces where it is safe. That sounds so abstract but I’m not sure how else to describe this strange feeling. MOONLIGHT is a reminder that that light shouldn't stay hidden. Let it shine.
[Image above courtesy of Roadshow Films]
Top left: A Single Man (2009, Tom Ford), top right: Heartbeats (2010, Xavier Dolan), middle: Pariah (2011, Dee Rees), bottom left: Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma), bottom right: Spa Night (2016, Andrew Ahn)