The Oscar ceremony had one of its most controversial and memorable endings ever when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope and erroneously announced that La La Land had won Best Picture, when, in fact, it was Moonlight that had achieved the Academy’s highest honor. Once all of the dust had settled and order had been restored, we all learned that, for once, the Academy chose important and reflective over one that was entertaining and escapist.
Following the Academy for as long as I have, I was certain that La La Land was going to be the winner. It tied a record with 14 nominations, and the other films that achieved that mark (Titanic and All About Eve) both took home the statue for Best Picture on Oscar night. Plus, it also seems that when one particular film receives 10 or more nominations, it generally receives Best Picture. Plus, La La Land won the Golden Globe Award for Best Musical or Comedy, and it started piling up the big awards as Oscar night went on. With all of the uproar over reading the wrong name, I think Faye Dunaway can be forgiven for seeing it on the card and presuming it to be the winner.
However, Moonlight also won a top Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, Drama. While it was “only” nominated for 8 Oscars, that’s still a good number of nominations, and it was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year with an astounding 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Moonlight is an important film on a number of levels. Not only was it written and directed by an African-American, but it also has an entirely African-American cast, and it deals with issues of poverty and drugs that have hung over the Africa-American community for decades. Those are the macro-issues of the film. The micro-issues of the film followed the lead character as he tries to come to grips with his sexuality in a largely intolerant community.
This feels especially important since the previous year’s Oscar ceremony was marred by the lack of racial diversity in the nominees. However, the critical acclaim of not only Moonlight, but also other primarily African-American stories like Hidden Figures and Fences showed that these were not just sympathy nominations. These films truly deserved to be recognized among the best films of the year.
Moonlight is told in a unique way. Its running time is just under 2 hours, and it’s told in three separate segments that follow Chiron as he grows from a young boy being bullied through being a pubescent teen being bullied and on into young adulthood as a remade young man who has taken control of his life, albeit in a less than exemplary way. As we follow Chiron through these stages, we see that this is a boy who is being forced to grow up fast. He has a mother who is addicted to drugs. Other kids in the neighborhood mercilessly bully him, and he thinks he might be attracted to Kevin, the one kid who is actually nice to him.
The film opens with Juan (Mahershala Ali in a performance that would net him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a local drug dealer in Miami who is checking on one of his sellers. As he talks, he sees Chiron run by, being chased by other kids. He tracks Chiron down hiding in an abandoned apartment, and offers him some food and a place to stay until Chiron is ready to talk. Juan takes Chiron home to his sister Teresa (Janelle Monáe) who takes care of him and offers him some food and a bed. Juan takes Chiron home the next day and we meet his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who we see right away is strung out and clearly on drugs.
We actually learn a lot in the first couple of minutes. We learn that Juan is a drug dealer, but we also see that he has a good heart as he takes Chiron under his wing. In a very touching scene Chiron asks Juan what a faggot is. Juan tells him that it’s a word people use to make gay people feel bad, and then Chiron asks if he is one. Juan tells him that he may be gay, but to never let anyone call him a faggot. Chiron asks how he’ll know and Teresa tells him that he doesn’t need to know now. He’ll know when he knows.
What makes this excellent filmmaking is that we’re introduced to characters that we should not like. Juan should be especially unlikable, since he’s a drug dealer, and we’ve rightly been conditioned to think of drug dealers as bad people. However, Juan is given depth as a character, because we’re shown that he also has a good heart. He sees that Chiron is in trouble and he goes out of his way to help him. What’s more, as the first act goes on, we see Juan become not only a mentor, but almost a fatherly-like figure for Chiron.
An equally powerful scene happens a couple of minutes later after Juan has caught Paula smoking crack that he sold to her boyfriend. Chiron is over at the house and he asks Juan if he sells drugs. Unable to say yes, Juan only nods. Disappointed, Chiron shakes his head before asking Juan if he knows if his mother does drugs. Ashamed of himself, Juan can only nod again. Chiron gets up and leaves the table, leaving behind Juan, who now has a look of such shame on his face and in his posture, it wouldn’t surprise me if that one moment won Ali the Oscar. His entire performance is amazing, and I’m not taking anything away from his performance as a whole. But that one moment is so heartbreaking and feels so real, it certainly would have been on my mind if I had been filling out an Oscar ballot.
It also helped add to the amazing level of drama in the film. This is nothing less than a total betrayal for Chiron. This man who has taken him under his wing and made his life better is now also responsible for the deterioration of his mother. We see it in Chiron that he feels betrayed, and we see the shame and guilt in Juan for realizing that he’s betrayed this boy. However, his ultimate betrayal is yet to come.
We then move into Chiron’s teenage years, and he’s a skinny kid who can’t defend himself. We’re told that Juan is dead, but he still goes to Teresa’s house in order to escape his mother. He’s still getting bullied, but now that they’re all bigger, the bullying is decidedly more dangerous. Also, Paula is completely strung out, and practically beats Chiron in order to get more money out of him to buy more drugs. Kevin is still the only kid who’s nice to him, and they happen to meet up at the beach one night, as they both went there looking to escape. Kevin has some pot with him and they share a blunt. The conversation becomes more personal and they begin to kiss. Kevin then puts his hand down Chiron’s pants and strokes him off.
The next day at school, Chiron sees Kevin sitting alone at lunch, and he’s about to sit with him until one of the bullies does. The bully then challenges Kevin to a game where he’ll pick out a victim and Kevin has to punch him until he won’t get up. Naturally, the bully selects Chiron, who stands defiantly in front of him. Kevin punches Chiron, but he defiantly gets back up. Kevin punches again, and again Chiron stands in front of him. After the third punch, the other three bullies start stomping on Chiron until a security guard runs up and chases them off. The next day, Chiron shows up to school and walks with determination to his classroom and viciously slams a chair into the lead bully and attacks him before being pulled away and led out of the school in handcuffs. Kevin shamefully watches him get led away, and Chiron looks at Kevin with that same look of betrayal that the younger Chiron looked at Juan. The men in Chiron’s life continue to betray him.
Finally, we come to Chiron as a grown man. He’s grown hard. He got out of jail, and he and his mother moved to Atlanta where he could start over. The years have hardened him. He’s now muscular and tough. The weakling is gone, and we see this in his new profession of a drug dealer. Juan’s betrayal is now complete. He was the best man that Chiron ever knew, and he’s following in his footsteps. But he’s still as sensitive as ever. We see this in how he interacts with his mother, who now lives in a rehab facility. She lives the life of regret, as she knows that she didn’t do right by him. She tells him that she understands if he doesn’t love her, but he has to know that she loves him.
Chiron gets a call from Kevin. He’s recently out of jail himself now, and is working as a cook back in Miami. Chiron drives all the way down there, but is betrayed again to find out that Kevin is married and has a young child. Chiron confesses to Kevin that he never let another man touch him like Kevin did. There is a moment of connection between them and the last thing we see is Chiron leaning his head on Kevin’s shoulder.
I think that Moonlight is ultimately a story about love, and how elusive love can be. I’m not even talking about romantic love versus familial love or platonic love, but any kind of love. People need to have love in their lives in order to feel complete. Even the hardest of the hard have something that they love and even if they don’t know it, desire love at a core level. A character like Chiron is someone who spends two thirds of the film trying to find any kind of love that he can because the one person who should be providing it to him, his mother, is unable to do so. The problem for him is that every time he finds love, the love is followed up almost immediately by a betrayal.
Moonlight actually has a very simple concept, but it is executed in a complex way that created a story that is dramatic and compelling. It doesn’t matter to me on way or the other that it has an all African-American cast or that it deals with love from an LGBTQ point of view. This is a well-made film that tells a dramatic and interesting story that is worthy of your time.
Did the Academy get it right?
Yes, they did. Moonlight is an exceptional film, but it wasn’t my favorite film of the year. If the award was Most Important Picture, then Moonlight is absolutely your winner, with a nod as well to Hidden Figures. If the award was for Most Entertaining Picture, then I think you’d have to go with La La Land. That wasn’t my favorite film of the year either, but I can see why it got so much love. I can also see why it got so much hate. I personally think it’s a terrific film, but it wasn’t the best film of the year. I actually had three favorites. I loved Arrival, Hell or Highwater and Hacksaw Ridge. I could have voted for any of those 3, and would probably have picked Arrival. I thought that all of those films had the perfect balance of entertainment value, drama and intensity. I also like Fences a lot, but it felt more like a stage play to me than a film. Lion was also very good, but it came up short for me in a couple of key areas. With all that said, even though it wasn’t my personal favorite film of the year, I do have to say that the Academy did get it right with Moonlight.