Stay Awake and See Moonlight

A [Not So Much] Film Review

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play the protagonist at three different stages of his life.    

It’s 1:43 a.m., and I can’t sleep. I just saw Moonlight and so should you. See the next showing! And buy tickets in advance. The 9:45 showing earlier this evening at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) was sold out.

Here’s what’s keeping me awake: the persistent desire, whether held or unseen, that we bring to the film watching experience to be captured, to be lifted, to encounter authenticity. That was my experience watching Moonlight. I rarely say this, but every element succeeds in this film, which is a coming-of-age story of love unfolding in a rough Miami neighborhood. It’s more than a love story, though. Moonlight is the new standard of the cinematic art of storytelling. This film humanizes characters who have been dehumanized for being black, gay, poor, addicted. This film stands firmly on the fertile ground of compassion, where we all begin. The narrative hinges on intelligence and talent rather than stereotypes and gimmicks played years past their expiration dates. The humor is subtle and cherished. Metaphors and the literal layers of storytelling intersect with grace. The acting doesn’t read as acting; it is living. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, and Ashton Sanders (and all of the other actors) show forgiveness that will shake you. There is a scene in which the preparation of a meal contains all of the romance one could ever ask to witness in a movie or in a lifetime; and it doesn’t feel forced. The audience is not manipulated into thinking or feeling. Thank you, Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, for telling this story with your talented crew, cast, and selves. James Laxton’s cinemaphotography, the lighting and sound design, editing, and casting are all works of art. The actors playing the main characters in different time periods are cast so well, for a moment I suspected natural aging. The color palette and tones are so vital to the storytelling, I consider the look of the film a character.

It’s 2:35 a.m., and I’m concerned I should be writing a review in which I dispense the plot points into three acts and compare director Barry Jenkins’s prior movies Medicine for Melancholy and My Josephine with Moonlight. I should be giving spoilers and spoiler alerts to justify my praise. I should be giving production backstory and budget numbers, writing in third person, and subtly weaving in my opinions about the art I’ve just seen. I should be more critical. I should be but I can’t be writing that review. Or, I don’t want to because that would be fiction for me.

It’s 3:08 a.m., and I’m still awake. I don’t want to sleep anymore. Being awake is where I want to be, in the Moonlight. This masterpiece offers relief from the many stories told from whiteness and selling that dream. Westerns and civil war stories and stories of slavery, capitalism, sexism, and other forms of horrific human histories that, in the end, with their perspective, embolden and protect the dream of white privilege and misogyny. I don’t need to name these movies whose plots frame all of history around white heroes. These movies that endorse double standards and define success, patriotism, beauty, love, courage. These are the majority of movies we have seen. The majority of movies the Hollywood film industry has funded, distributed, and awarded honors. They serve the whiteness and privilege dream. During the Moonlight scene in which the character Blue encourages the character Little to be proud of being black and tells him that black people have been on this planet longer than everyone else, the white audience members seated behind me sighed and tsk-ed.

If you’re still wondering how this movie challenges the narrative of the Hollywood film industry, I implore you to see it. Be vulnerable. I can’t say it enough: stay awake and see Moonlight. Bring a clean sleeve for tears. It’s autumn, people are coughing on the subway, and you don’t want to rub your eyes with the common cold or the flu on your hands. Not a crier? See this film.  You might be a crier yet.