With all the fuss surrounding the night of the Oscars this year (including the drama of the surprise win of the film Moonlight , directed by Barry Jenkins, over the much more anticipated contender La La Land, directed by Damien Ghazelle), much commentary centred on the politics behind the upset. In hindsight, ever since the two films appeared on festival circuits, it really seemed that Ghazelle’s musical was an assured winner for the title of Best Picture. Eventually, at the end of a “Trump charged” year, and when the winners were announced, it wasn’t Hollywood escapism (celebrating this time opportunist careerism over the “silliness” of maintaining human relations) which enticed voters.
Deeply conscious of its liberal reputation and crowds, the elite of the American Academy of Motion Pictures chose a film which did not reflect what Hollywood usually favors for a winning Oscar combination. The winner, Moonlight, focused on the most marginal of the marginalised in American society: a gay protagonist in a world of drug-dealing black working class America. Furthermore, Jenkins’s film was “artsy,” made by a small independent production company and with a budget of $ 1.5 million (lowest both among this year’s contenders as well as in the history of Oscar Best Picture winners). Moreover, when the film was declared the winner it had the lowest box office returns ($22 million) of any film in Best Picture history.
Indeed, the whole thing was a huge reversal of what is usually expected from the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy. While the membership of this influential body remains a closely guarded secret, it has always been a well-known fact (supported by a 2011 Los Angeles Times study), that voters are distinctly less diverse than the movie going public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry claim. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, The Times found. African Americans compose about 2% of the academy, and Latinos less than 2%.
Here in the Arab world (where many long to prove themselves more prejudiced than the most prejudiced), many movie critics were greatly disappointed in the results… probably more than most critics around the world. Many singled out a high dose of "political correctness" which hit the Hollywood elite after the election of Trump as president of the United States. In the view of these critics the result was a fiasco which exposed the unprofessional side of the Hollywood elite; they saw the voting as a sheer exercise in opportunism by an elite group vying to prove its sympathy for racial, religious, and social elements within American society that were under attack by the new administration.
Ironically, there is some truth to the above claims. Moonlight was up for eight Oscars, topped by Best Picture, and included Best Cinematography (James Laxton), Best Editing (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon), Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins). But having won the title for best picture, best screenplay and best supporting actor, the film lost in all the other key categories including cinematography and editing and was not even nominated in the category of directing. This was a contradictory and inconsistent attitude by the voters of the Academy, who normally (but not always) tend to lend a complementary consideration towards these categories when they vote on their choice for Best Film.
What the critics missed, however, was that the Academy was not wrong in offering the Best Picture title to Moonlight, but that it was indeed inconsistent because it did not offer more recognition to the film in the other categories. The film was undeniably original and a stunning visual experience and interpretation of a simple yet very pertinent story in today’s America. The inability of the Academy voters to recognize Moonlight's other attributes revealed the triviality of its political and aesthetic “progressive” façade. In fact, what made Moonlight what it is was actually it superior and original cinematography, editing, music, and the ability of its director to eloquently integrate all these elements into a meticulous execution of a well-written screenplay.
Moonlight adds a new dimension to the notion of social realism as a cinematic practice. Engrossed in the life of a complex but well-defined protagonist (with black, ghetto, gay, and working class influences) and the milieu within which he grows up over three consecutive periods, the film explores the boy’s life not as a drama but as a poem. The film renders a version of social reality as seen through the eyes of a poet protagonist and, by extension, a poet filmmaker. As such, the film explores broader social dimensions through indulging the individual as a microcosmic hub of poetic contemplations without letting go the harsh material span of social marginalisation.
The social consciousness and feel of the film is indeed both poignant and inventive.
Barry Jenkins’ screenplay is adapted from an undated story (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is composed of three sections depicting Chiron’s coming of age. Beginning with grade-school, then high school, and finally young adulthood, the structure of the film impresses the feel of consecutive sketches depicting assorted portraits from three key moments in the main character’s life.
Moonlight is clearly conscious of the politics of racism, governmental mistreatment and negligence, unemployment, homophobia, mass ghettoization, drugs, poverty and how they have been impacting the lives of African Americans in the last three decades. But the film does not claim to offer solutions to this reality and leaves it for us to ponder further.
At every turn, Moonlight disputes stereotypes while consistently immersing them in the sociocultural context of violence and alienation in modern day America. For example, Juan, Chiron’s childhood ‘mentor’ is a drug dealer who is forced to tackle his own morals when he realizes that Chiron’s mother is one of his customers. But the film complicates the phenomenon of drugs within black communities in the United States both as a destructive force as well as an escape and disconnect from the harsh realities of life, and as a source of financial power and independence in a harshly oppressed, neglected and marginalised urban landscape.
The film chronicles for Chiron, but in essence provides a historical context for American racism, reminding us of a country that stripped Africans of their ancestral cultural and literal identities. In one scene, someone asks Chiron, "Who is you, man?, a question posed by the great African American singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson in the version of "What is America to me?" delivered in a song in the film Killer of Sheep; the film seems like a direct precursor to Moonlight in its poetic depiction of the fate of black Americans.
But a major facet of Moonlight’s beauty as a film is owed to the artistry of its execution. Using impressionistic cinematography, editing style and music constantly tugs the viewer into the unfamiliar world of the inner emotions of the protagonist. In many ways, the film ushers us through a journey, a drenching and painful one for that matter, which upper and upper-middle class America (and its counterpart in Hollywood) insist on ignoring.
The outcome is a cinematic approach that is unusual and possibly uncomfortable to those who aren’t used to it. It is an approach which is intent on facing off against the illusionary marvels of “realist” gadgets (now reaching new marketing heights with more “perfect” special effects, 3-D glasses, even shaking seats and simulated experience). Instead, Moonlight venerates the aesthetics of depicting the subjective intensity of its characters and the subject matter itself.
Cinematographer James Laxton uses three different color palettes for each of the three segments of the film. He even uses a different type of camera to fashion a unique experience for each of the three moments in Chiron’s life. In doing this, Laxton shifts away from the documentary “realist” approach favored in films dealing with issues of class marginalisation.
The alternative here is a pensive image rooted in Chiron’s own impressionistic scrutiny of the colors and lights of the Miami setting. More specifically, this visual texture allows for an even more impressionistic cinematic treatment of the bright pastel colors and lush, and the tropical green trees and grass. This is made all the richer when put in the context of the unforgiving, sun-drenched neighbourhood of Liberty City, the impoverished section of Miami where filmmaker Jenkins and co-writer Tarell McCraney both grew up. The lighting design approaches differently the skin tones of the characters.
To capture the atmospheric tones of Miami, Laxton wanted the actors’ skin to shine, so the audience can get a feel of the sun beating down on them. To achieve this, the cinematographer pushed the contrast ratio in virtually every scene in the film, and in the process avoided the use of any fill lighting, allowing the light to fall off into shadows and to carve the faces of characters. The result was indeed powerful, and made every shot in the film worthy of treatment as a still photograph or a painting.
The film also relies on numerous close-ups of the faces of the characters drawing a claustrophobic representation of their world. At certain points the camera stands frontally before the faces, to the extent that we feel them speaking to us through the lens. Other techniques contribute to the discomfitting feel of the film, including hand-held cameras used in motion-driven scenes. Even in the more sublime scenes, the film visually struggles to keep its hold of the emotive waves of the protagonist. Perhaps one of the most referenced scenes in the film is the “baptismal” scene where the grade-school Chiron is taught how to swim. The camera is immersed in the water in close proximity to Juan and Chiron (the scene is overwhelmingly in medium and close-up shots), and is fighting off the tides of the ocean. What the characters were going through, the anxiety as much as the elation, the camera was as well, allowing the audience to engage fully with Chiron’s experience.
In turn, the film's unmistakably slow editing style shows its preoccupation with capturing the inner moments of the characters, allowing for longer visual breathing spaces to become familiar with their personal, social, and environmental surroundings. In one ABC interview, co-editor Joi McMillon describes her attempt to project the deeply “internal” personality of Chiron: “he doesn't speak much,” and as an editor “you had to cut through many scenes that were not punctuated with a dialogue.” In fact, the long shots and silences in the film do speak volumes and often accentuate a brilliant toying with sound design, while introducing abrupt cuts to black that never disturb the elegant camera movements.
Complementing all this, Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack offers a departure from the traditional sensitive, tender, and intimate introspective associated with many coming-of-age soundtracks. On Jenkin’s suggestion, Britell used “chopped and screwed” music, a genre of Southern hip-hop where songs are bent and pitched and slowed down. Musical sounds assume a captivating morphed version of their original classical score version, giving them a deeper and richer effect. Once again, the result is mesmerising and achingly powerful.
Moonlight invokes an impressionistic interpretation of identity not as a divide, but as a social and class construct; it restores complexity to the very idea of identity. At the time when this notion is used and refashioned to symbolise hate and divisiveness, the film renders it as an extension to broader racial, sexual, and social realities. Even the “gangsta” masculinity that conceals the protagonist's inner emotions remains one identity among many, all of which are engrossed in variable forms of marginalisation affecting all working class Americans. In the end, the social, impressionistic style of the film (which, by nature, tends to be very individually focused and rendered), lends itself to a macrocosmic dimension, and as such points in the direction of a much broader American reality. Moonlight provides an original alternative within the paradigm of socially conscious film traditions and how they depict aspects of social marginalisation.
The Hollywood elite might have been confused, but the outcome was refreshing indeed.
*Malek Khouri (Ph.D.) is Professor of Film Studies at the American University in Cairo.