Who You Gon' Be?
“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gon’ be,” says Jaun, the unlikely father figure of Moonlight, co-written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Juan speaks to the film’s young protagonist, “Little” (or rather, Chiron) in a scene emblematic of the both the identity of Chiron and the film itself. The scene is of Juan’s childhood — his only backstory — but gives insight into the films emphasis on names and their significance. This focus on appellation leads the film’s audience to pay close attention to Chiron’s abandonment of “Little,” and his God given name is abandoned for “Black.” So what is in a name? “Movie of the year” and “Best Picture” seem to get tossed around lightly until the night of the Oscars. But Best Picture is the ultimate award for a film; it means accomplished success for reasons beyond popularity, impacting not only filmgoers but the industry in ways that are predicted to be long standing. Plenty of films are good, or titled best, but few change the way films are made. Moonlight meets the criteria of Best Picture, but it is the societal impact, in cohesion with mastery of craft that grants the film validity to contend with the greatest of all time.
Barry Jenkins has made Moonlight a film that demands contemporary significance in its ability to be groundbreaking, with a new stylistic innovation that simultaneously connects thematics influenced by Hollywood’s Golden Era, capturing a little bit of everything in between. His auteurism comes from a style that seems to rely on a Goddardian, minimalistic approach, utilizing authenticity found in the environment the narrative is birthed from. Jenkins harnesses this modern style while utilizing thematic elements that predate the film by 70 years. The film in mind, The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler, is of the same calibre. Both films connect beyond their strumming of heartstrings, connecting on a contextually similar level: minority groups and their struggles with an American public unready to face them. American soldiers displaced as they are welcomed home and a gay, African American teen inside the ghetto, is not exactly what audiences thought they wanted to see, but, it was what they needed to see. Despite the public’s readiness to partake in these radical films, they are the sleeping giants, reaping the rewards of the risks taken. One might even imagine Brad Pitt (who produced the film) speaking the same words about Moonlight as Samuel Goldwyn spoke about The Best Years of Our Lives: “I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel…I just want every man, woman and child in America to see it.” That’s the type of ardor filmmakers have to exude during production to sweep an Oscars like Best Years did.
Jenkins displays a mastery of filmmaking as well as an extensive knowledge go the films that inspired what arts film focus filmmaking is comprise of today. His French New Wave sensibilities: long cuts and looming pans from the camera; the world of the film is perceived through Chiron’s eyes. Jenkins’ work shows him to be the type of auteur director to change the formula of what makes a successful film — especially in the Black American film community. It is unlikely that the praise Moonlight has received is because of the American audience’s call for diversity in Hollywood; Jenkins was ready to do what most Black American filmmakers were not: make a film that refuses play to any preconceptions and expectations of what this type of film should be. The juxtaposition of composed scores during scenes where established Hollywood filmmakers might throw in a trendy hip-hop beat dodges the clichés so regularly seen in a film of this setting. The only urban music featured in the film has the feeling of being diegetic. The film aligns with, pierced ideals, contemporary envelope pushing, and awareness of predecessors, tickling all the right sorts of fantasies in the Academy — who when divergent from this formula when making their pick is often viewed with skepticism.
Jenkins takes no mercy in axing many of the clichés seen throughout Hollywood today — where he has little to no insecurity about making a film composed of completely jagged edges. Even the score is inspired by chopped-and-screwed music. The film is gritty, yet lovely, and a slow blossoming love story, creating a sense of fulfillment that does not find solace in a fairytale ending. The film allows for a growing appreciation with continual viewing. Jenkins’ willingness to push boundaries to discover the film world’s unknown landscape — while bringing the greatest of the classic elements with him — makes his film the obvious choice for Best Picture.
One might argue the the separation of narrative structure arching over three parts of Chiron’s life remove the viewer from the films diegesis. Jenkins’ preoccupation with the actors who play Chiron does not rest solely in the actors’ likeness to one another, but in the focus on their eyes; each share a depth in their soul, exposed by those windows into it — so much so that all three are aligned in a collage for the film’s Coming Soon poster. The film is able to jump over the hurdles it sets for itself by outdoing any prejudices one might have for the story, because of its ability to stand alone as something original in its story and unique in its presentation. The subject matter of the film becomes a diverse collage, pieced into a rough and gritty portrait of real life, exempt from a forced label of genre. This is a look at life through the eyes of a more than an unlikely protagonist, unrecognizable to most: a young Black male. Like the identity of the heroic figure Jenkins portrays in his story, the almost voiceless young Black man who speaks no more than a few monosyllabic words at a time. The silence of this character, as well as its representation of identity which exists for Black Americans, a likeness is created between him and the audience — who too has no voice — allows for a different type of empathy between the two, both as onlookers. This type of immersive perspective is a necessary one in the evolution of storytelling while keeping sacred this art form driven by passion that has a clear line drawn in the sand between itself and commerciality.
The Academy’s picks for Best Picture do not alway reflect the most deserving — most famously, Citizen Kane — but this year differentiates itself in the fact that audiences’ prayed for diversity, a prayer that has been answered. But it is not because of the films societal impact that it demands respect, it is the resourcefulness of its creators, and the willingness to look through an introspective lens and be brave enough to be vulnerable and face rejection against all odds. The film has already influenced contemporary filmmakers, laying a blueprint for the things they do not need to do to have widespread and urban success — a feet alone that deserve accreditation. Filmmaking is the broadest reaching medium of art, and Jenkins uses it to its full potential with purpose.