Birthed at the tail-end of Nixon conservatism in 1973 by Boris Gardiner and popularized last year by Kendrick Lamar in “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the song “Every Ni–er Is a Star” opens Barry Jenkins’ masterful sophomore film, “Moonlight.” Like in Lamar’s rap-soul-funk-jazz opus, Gardiner’s soulful track signifies the creation of groundbreaking art. Work that transcends superlatives yet undoubtedly demands them.
Set in inner city Miami, Florida, Jenkins weaves together an intricate triptych charting the life of Chiron, from childhood to adulthood (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes). From the beginning, Chiron is reserved, unable to make eye contact with almost anyone. He’s a young boy who has to hide away in an abandoned drug den from bullying classmates.
When he goes home, he has to face another kind of abuser in his mother (Naomie Harris). His father is absent. As a result, the mom works several jobs to make ends meet. When she’s not working, she’s lighting up. First surreptitiously, then in public, where her dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”) can see her.
By fate, Juan stumbles into Chiron’s life one afternoon. Chiron is in need of a father figure, and Juan is in need of some kind of wholesome stability. With the help of his maternal girlfriend Theresa (singer Janelle Monáe), Juan does what he can for the rudderless child.
From the onset, Chiron’s crack-inflicted mother insinuates that he may be gay. Of course, Chiron, at age five, has no idea what (or whom) he desires. He just fundamentally understands her anger and frustration at the possibility. In one shot that is interspersed throughout the film, we see Chiron’s mother ambling into her bedroom, emanating a pinkish hue. She’s about to use. Before she does, though, she gives Chiron the type of look that stays with you, the kind you get from someone who’s become unhinged. As a woman derailed by drugs, and uncertain how to raise a child on her own. Harris crafts a character that is at once empathetic and despicable.
But Chiron grows up. He’s laconic yet head-strong. Jenkins jumps to high school, where not much has changed. Chiron remains the subject of constant harassment. Aggressive children morphed into more aggressive teenagers. They call him “soft” and “weak,” unable to defend himself against their group-think tyranny.
In this black community, Chiron is a pariah. His sexuality — although undeclared at this point — seems to separate him from his peers. What Jenkins explores so tactfully is the immaculate manhood that James Baldwin wrote about in his seminal novel, “Giovanni’s Room.” Manhood as unchecked power and dominance over others, especially women.
Being a man means beating your male friends in Smear the Queer, a game that appears innocuous in the rose-colored haze of youth, but in retrospect is a kind of breakdown in human behavior. Being a man means dropping your pants and literally measuring dicks. Being a man means constructing a façade of strength, even when you’re weak.
Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) understands the hypocrisy of it all, especially the heteronormativity instilled into young men and women at an impressionable age. Chiron, hunchbacked and worn down by his surroundings, does not fit into an easily definable category. The great ones rarely do.
With the help of Tarell McCraney (who wrote the story), Jenkins reveals the heart of the film methodically. Like Chiron himself, “Moonlight,” and what it’s articulating, isn’t so easily described. The film isn’t a ho-hum parable or a cautionary tale. It doesn’t bang viewers over the head with a life lesson to glean from this story. I’m not sure it even offers hope.
This is not to suggest the proceedings are cynical, because they’re not. Jenkins and McCraney have artfully cobbled together something that is impressionistic and wondrous, like a compendium of half-remembered memories, tinged by sadness. A lot of Chiron’s circumstances are the result of familial absence. He’s missing what The Isley Brothers describe in “At Your Best (You Are Love)”:
But at your best you are love You’re a positive motivating force within my life Should you ever feel the need to wonder why Let me know, let me know
But Chiron has no one to “let know,” no positive motivating force in his life. He has no one to tell him that he’ll be OK, that his current agony isn’t necessarily permanent. Juan and Theresa try admirably as surrogates to fill the void, and for a little bit that even works. Then tragedy strikes.
“Moonlight” is not a public service announcement or a cry for help. It doesn’t fetishize Chiron’s pain, as so many pieces of contemporary American cinema do. It’s a humanist film; it’s about people, and it’s got a pulse. It presents characters as idiosyncratic, domineering, but mostly fearful — timid creatures ambling through life in the hopes of finding refuge.
25 Fall Movies We're Dying to See: From 'The Birth of a Nation' to 'Rogue One' (Photos)
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.
"The Light Between Oceans" Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz Director: Derek Cianfrance Release Date: Sept. 2 What it's about: A lighthouse keeper (Fassbender) and his wife (Vikander) rescue a baby girl who washes up in a rowboat and unofficially adopt her. When the girl grows older, an encounter with a certain woman on the mainland threatens to break up their happy life. Why we're dying to see it: This is the movie that started the real-life Fassbender-Vikander romance. We have to see the chemistry that unfolds between them on screen.
"The Magnificent Seven" Director: Antoine Fuqua Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A remake of the classic Western about seven outlaws as they help a town under siege by an industrialist villain. Why we're dying to see it: It's an A-list remake that showcases some good diversity. Plus Antoine Fuqua directed "Training Day," in which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
"Queen of Katwe" Director: Mira Nair Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A biographical drama about Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who earned Woman Candidate Master at the World Chess Olympiads. Why we're dying to see it: It's an untold story of a Ugandan chess player who grew up in the slum of Katwe. Rarely do we get to see feel-good stories about Africa on the big screen.
Walt Disney Pictures
"The Girl on the Train" Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett Director: Tate Taylor Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: The story follows a recently divorced woman (Blunt) who fantasizes during her daily commute about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until she sees something shocking and becomes entangled in a mystery. Why we're dying to see it: It's based on Paula Hawkins' best-selling novel and has the same feel as "Gone Girl."
"The Birth of a Nation" Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Gabrielle Union Director: Nate Parker Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: Parker stars as the 19th-century slave Nat Turner, who was taught to read the Bible to preach to fellow slaves but wound up leading a famous rebellion in 1831. Why we're dying to see it: Parker's directorial debut was phenomenon at Sundance, where it was bought for a festival-record $17.5 million.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
"Kevin Hart: What Now?" Cast: Kevin Hart Director: Leslie Small Release Date: Oct. 14 What it's about: A stand-up comedy film that features his performance from the recently concluded "What Now?" tour. Why we're dying to see it: It's been five long years since his last stand-up film, "Laugh at My Pain."
"A Monster Calls" Cast: Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones Director: J.A. Bayona Release Date: Oct. 21 What it's about: A young boy deals with a terminally ill mother and bullies at school with the help of an ancient monster tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). Why we're dying to see it: Patrick Ness' fantastical children's novel, based on an idea from a woman with terminal cancer, was adapted for the screen by Ness himself.
"Doctor Strange" Cast:Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson, Tilda Swinton Director: Scott Derrickson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is an egotistical but brilliant surgeon whose career is destroyed after a car accident ruins his hands. Searching the globe to repair them, he encounters the Ancient One (Swinton), a sorcerer who trains Strange to defend the world from evil. Why we’re excited to see it: Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s more eccentric (and lesser known) heroes and the trailers have promised plenty some seriously trippy, magical mayhem.
Walt Disney Studios
“Hacksaw Ridge” Cast:Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer Director:Mel Gibson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it’s about: It's based on the true story of U.S. Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Garfield) during World War II. Doss refused to kill anybody or bear arms, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. Why we’re excited to see it: The story sounds fascinating, and this is Mel Gibson’s first film as a director since 2006’s “Apocalypto.”
"Loving" Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll Director: Jeff Nichols Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: An interracial couple wages a legal fight against imprisonment in the mid-20th-century South, leading to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia. Why we're dying to see it: The film has been building buzz since its debut at Cannes, particularly for co-star Ruth Negga.
"All Eyez on Me" Cast: Demetrius Shipp Jr. Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan Director: Benny Boom Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: A biopic on Tupac Shaku's rise to fame all the way to his death during a drive-by in Las Vegas. Why we're dying to see it: Tupac has had multiple films made about his life, but the last one worth watching ("Tupac: Resurrection") was released 13 years ago. Plus, Tupac.
Open Road Films
"Arrival" Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker Director: Denis Villeneuve Release Date: Nov. 16 What it's about: After alien spacecrafts descend on Earth, a linguist (Adams) is hired by the U.S. government to investigate them. Why we're dying to see it: The film has a strong pedigree, Adams has been nominated for five Oscars and the director's last film, "Sicario," received three Oscar nominations.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund Director: Ang Lee Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: Based on a novel of the same name, the film follows an Iraq war hero whose victory tour back in the U.S. is interrupted by jarring flashbacks. Why we're dying to see it: Great source material, and Ang Lee's first film since another eye-catching literary adaptation, "The Life of Pi."
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Cast:Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell Director: David Yates Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: Before Harry Potter even existed, there was Newt Scamander (Redmayne). The wizard -- and future author of a textbook mainstay at Hogwarts — visits the Magical Congress of the United States in 1926, but loses control of a special briefcase containing a number of dangerous beasts. Why we’re excited to see it:J.K. Rowling. Wizards. Eddie Redmayne.
“Nocturnal Animals” Cast:Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer Director:Tom Ford Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: In an adaptation of Austin Wright's 1933 novel “Tony and Susan,” Adams stars as an art gallery owner who begins receiving the manuscript of her ex-husband’s violent thriller novel. As Susan reads more of the story, she begins to interpret it as a threat. Why we’re excited to see it: This will be fashion designer Tom Ford’s second directorial feature, following 2009’s “A Single Man.” The dynamic cast is sure to make this thriller a memorable one.
"Manchester by the Sea" Cast:Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedge Director: Kenneth Lonergan Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: An uncle (Affleck) must take care of his teenage nephew (Hedge) and return to his hometown after the death of the boy’s father. Why we’re excited to see it: The film received high praise when it premiered at Sundance and Lucas Hedge delivers a breakout performance as the nephew, Patrick.
"Moana" Cast:Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Phillipa Soo Director: Ron Clements, John Musker Release Date: Nov. 23 What it’s about: A young woman, Moana (Cravalho), sets sail for a fabled island and is joined by demigod Maui (Johnson) along the way. Why we’re excited to see it: The animated musical is Disney’s first story about a Polynesian princess and will feature original music by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Plus, the Rock sings!
"La La Land" Cast:Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock Director: Damien Chazelle Release Date: Dec. 2 What it’s about: Stone and Gosling star as an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist, respectively, in modern-day L.A. The two meet and soon fall in love, but as each begins to find success in their dream careers, their relationship threatens to tear apart. Why we’re excited to see it: We’ve already seen the chemistry between Stone and Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad,” so we can’t wait to see what happens with the two of them when dancing and music are added in this romantic comedy-drama musical.
"Fences" Director: Denzel Washington Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo Release Date: Dec. 16 What's it about: A once-promising baseball player ends up working as a garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh. Why we're dying to see it: August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play with two amazing actors -- who won Tonys in 2010 for playing these very roles on Broadway.
20th Century Fox
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" Cast:Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen Director: Gareth Edwards Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: Essentially a prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the film follows a group of Rebel spies as they attempt to steal plans for the Death Star. Why we’re excited to see it: Not only is it the first standalone film in the "Star Wars" franchise, but the trailer promises a badass female lead and plenty of fight scenes.
"Collateral Beauty" Cast:Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton Director: David Frankel Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: An advertising executive in New York faces a downward spiral after a tragic event, prompting his colleagues to seek a plan to get him out his funk. Why we’re excited to see it: “The Devil Wears Prada” director returns to New York City with an all-star cast.
"The Founder" Cast:Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch Director: John Lee Hancock Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: The biographical film follows Ray Kroc (Keaton) meeting Mac and Dick McDonald and developing the first McDonald’s franchise. Why we’re excited to see it: Aren’t you curious to hear how McDonald’s started? And Keaton could be back in the Oscar race for the third straight year.
"Passengers" Cast:Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne Director: Morten Tyldum Release Date: Dec. 21 What it’s about: Lawrence and Pratt play two passengers aboard a spacecraft that’s on a 120-year journey to a distant planet. Due to a malfunction, two passengers are prematurely woken up with 90 years left to go on the voyage. Why we’re excited to see it: Two of Hollywood's biggest stars team for a sci-fi romance that seemed very promising from the first footage shown at CinemaCon in April.
"Why Him?" Cast:James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Bryan Cranston, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam DeVine, Megan Mullally Director: John Hamburg Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: A father (Cranston) meets his daughter’s wealthy and eccentric boyfriend (Franco) and immediately dislikes him -- and resists all of Franco's attempts to win him over. Why we’re excited to see it: Cranston and Franco seem like the perfect oddball pairing-- plus it's great to see them both in a comdy.
20th Century Fox
"Toni Erdmann" Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn Director: Maren Ade Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: An older father (Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his adult daughter (Hüller) by playing pranks on her. Why we’re excited to see it: The comedic film, a hit at Cannes, boasts a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. TheWrap’s Steve Pond described it as a “hysterically funny but deeply touching father-daughter story that ... doesn’t waste a moment.”
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Fall Movie Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the films you need to see before year’s end
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.