Moonlight has become a cause celebre. A film that speaks not so much for itself, but for the minorities of the world. People have talked about it in terms of the importance of universal stories coming from all sectors of society. Whilst this is completely right, whether it helps Moonlight to be saddled with this baggage is another story. In the end, all film is political. That’s why we watch more movies from the States than any other country. Including stories from the margin. It’s a reflection of the soft political power that the States exercises, whether we like it or not. The fact that the film was garlanded with the Oscar only serves to reinforce the potency of the Oscar brand, and by default, the North American brand. At a Curzon screening a few months ago, the man introducing Blue Velvet said that Moonlight would have the same impact as Mean Streets/ Taxi Driver. But I think it's worth noting that Scorsese was rejected at the Oscars for decades. They didn’t like his films, and they didn’t like them because they offered the kind of messages which the establishment didn’t want to hear.
Once a film becomes judged for its political standpoint as much as its aesthetics, the boundaries shift. This is true for Moonlight just as much as for Rambo. Barry Jenkins exercises considerable directorial flair, and there should be a hat-tip to the cinematography of James Laxton. Almost as though in reaction to the last film review on the blog, we see a director employing the tricks of the trade with glee, from the opening gyratory shot to the use of colour and camera. Another film Moonlight is reminiscent of in this regard is McQueen’s Hunger. Having said all of this, the narrative itself becomes pedestrian. There are times when the screenplay’s stage play roots begins to show through, as though there’s a tension between directorial intent and the script. The extended restaurant scene in the third act has a clunky feel, and the last scene with the mother veers towards melodrama. The promised journey to the hard edge of the American dream is never delivered. The film’s final act veers towards sentimentalism instead. Which, of course, helps to explain its mainstream appeal. Oscars are not given to films that truly rock the boat.
Moonlight is a fine film, which has some bravura moments. It deserves all the plaudits and love its getting. It takes a lot of the indie tropes and makes them work on a grand scale. Perhaps the Chazelle film it should really be compared with isn’t its supposed rival, but Whiplash, another rites of passage movie which was also a showcase for an emergent director making a name for himself.
(As a ps - Moonlight also brought to mind the brilliance of James Baldwin’s Another Country. As far as I know there has never been a cinematic version of one of the more astonishing works of American literature, which also incorporated a gay narrative in order to recount the story of the ‘other’ United States. It’s twenty years since I read it but the power of Baldwin’s exploration of the margins holds fast in my mind. In many ways it is a terrible indictment of North American culture that over half a century later a narrative employing themes of race and sexual orientation - specifically a ‘black, gay’ narrative - should still be seen as radical.)