The Brunel Writer Prize is awarded to the student who achieves the highest graded non-fiction article submission for the Creative Industries module on Brunel University’s Creative Writing programme. The piece of non-fiction should be ‘fresh, original, compelling and well balanced’. The winner of this year’s prize is Tom Hull for his review of Moonlight.
How La La Land er… Moonlight brought classic romance back to the silver screen this season
As Moonlight opens onto a shot of Mahershala Ali driving to the old-school soul soundtrack of Boris Gardiner’s Every N***** Is A Star, from the outset Barry Jenkins’ film tells us this story is by black people, for black people. Controversial it may be, but Moonlight brings to the mainstream screen for the first time an understated portrait of ordinary lives that are usually either a headline or a punchline. And yet I saw Moonlight (before it won Best Picture in a live mishap guaranteed to generate all the publicity a filmmaker could hope for) in an independent cinema with a small audience, mostly elderly. In the current global political climate, perhaps it’s unsurprising that a black queer coming-of-age narrative is the underdog that Odeon and its ilk weren’t banking on. The film only shines brighter for this: a masterful bildungsroman that doesn’t need to shove its message in our faces.
Based upon Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, it tells the story of troubled Chiron, growing up in Miami and falling in love with his best friend. The narrative splits into three parts, for the protagonist’s three nicknames: as a child ‘Little’, as a teenager ‘Chiron’, and ‘Black’ as an adult. The world is unflinchingly current, with contemporary slang throughout (so much so that in the screening I attended, subtitles were used, serving as a dry symbol of the gap between the world of the film and that audience). The story, however, is as classic as the Odyssey: young man faces troubles, has the help of a mentor (a deservedly Oscar-winning Ali), and finally must go it alone and accept himself. It’s a life story, and crucially a love story: childhood sweetheart Kevin is a constant, and though accepting his sexuality is Chiron’s core struggle, cheesy coming-out tropes are crucially avoided, and the romantic content is minimal yet touching.
Outside of its cultural significance, how does the film work? Visually, it’s a treat. In an industry full of washed-out grey films, Moonlight comes to life in striking colour; particularly in a scene where Little stands alone in a garden and is, simply and naturalistically, lit up in blue moonlight, not a word spoken. It’s this artistic cinematography, combining with Nicholas Britell’s haunting classical soundtrack, that frames a stripped-back screenplay that doesn’t have a word of dialogue more than it needs. Chiron says very little, but the dialogue doesn’t feel lacking. It’s a hearkening to a basic cinematic staple: show, don’t tell.
The cast is strong: the child actors are notable; Alex R. Hibbert a solemn and gentle little boy, and yet we fully believe that Trevante Rhodes’s swaggering, built adult Black is the same individual – particularly impressive considering the actors never met each other during filming. Although the narrative is male-driven, Janelle Monae makes much of her small role and Naomie Harris gives a career-peaking performance as Chiron’s addict mother, both tyrant and victim. André Holland is a good foil for Rhodes as Kevin, though his screentime is limited. Plot-wise, one fault is that at times the action is too minimal: without spoiling, the final chapter, ‘Black’, feels as though it stops short; we’re given no time to learn about the intervening years before the narrative abruptly resolves itself. The film is nearly two hours long, but would have benefited from filling some of its empty spaces.
Moonlight might be a hard sell for some, particularly the closed-minded, or those who’d accuse it of simply seeking brownie points with its subject matter. Certainly, much of the film is no picnic, but that’s what makes its quiet message of self-acceptance so important – and that it comes together as an artistic triumph certainly helps. The cinema window may have gone, but don’t pass up the Blu-Ray: Moonlight lives up to the hype.
Tom Hull is a writer, reader, and admirer of dogs. Born and raised in Oxford, he is mostly preoccupied with being petty on the internet whilst trying to finish his first novel. His prose and poetry have been published five times, most recently in The Teenagers Company. If you have a picture of a dog to send him, you can do so on Twitter.