Review: Moonlight (2016)

Out of many, one

By Zeke Trautenberg

“Who is you Chiron?”. That is the question Chiron’s friend—and by extension viewers—ask at the end of Moonlight. Despite the camera’s tight focus on Chiron, he remains inscrutable. The protagonist of Barry Jenkin’s film is, like the Christian God, both one and three. Viewers see three Chirons: the small, defiant young boy (Alex Hibbert); a wiry, shy teenager (Ashton Sanders); and a man (Trevante Rhodes) who masks his inner scars with an outer shell of hardened masculinity. This chameleonic character, who shares a name with a centaur of Greek mythology, is the film’s central mystery.

Jenkins’ film is an adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shares a screenplay credit with Jenkins. Like Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater’s coming of age story of a white boy in Texas, Moonlight depicts its protagonist’s development over a period of years. Set largely in Miami, film features the traditional three act structure of the theater and the modern coming-of-age story: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In the first act, we see the young boy grow attached to Juan (Mashershala Ali), a local drug dealer, who offers the boy shelter and companionship, but who also supplies his mother with crack. This moral morass, like the humidity that envelops the film’s Florida setting, is a recurring leitmotiv. In the second act, Chiron faces alienation in high school, experiences his first sexual encounter, and, after an act of violence, is inducted into the criminal justice system. In the third act, a muscular Chiron, virtually unrecognizable from his teenage self, spends his days “trapping” near Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving a call from his childhood friend Kevin (André Holland), Chiron drives back to Miami to visit him and by extension his past.

The common thread of these portraits of boyhood, adolescence, and manhood is Chiron’s reticence to talk about himself. As his friend Kevin observes, Chiron rarely says more than three words at time. Chiron’s silence, however, is not a sign of inner tranquility or indifference. Rather, the taciturn character at the core of Moonlight is a churning tide of insecurity and alienation. He alternatively runs from and seeks solace in his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), struggles with his own sexuality, refashions himself in the image of his surrogate father, and seeks human connection while resisting emotional attachment.

Jenkins’ inspired and assured direction, the dexterity of James Laxton the Director of Photography, and the subtle editing work of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are vital to the telling of Chiron’s story. Two of the key formal choices Jenkin’s makes are eschewing voice-in-off narration and to embracing an elliptical narrative structure. Deprived of access to Chiron’s internal thoughts, viewers must engage the film actively and unearth the protagonist’s many layers. In a similar vein, the film’s elliptical narrative structure reflects Chiron’s reactions to his circumstances, as he variously flees from and run towards the people who inconstantly populate his life. A close, but imperfect parallel is Michelangelo Antonioni’s representation of Monica Vitti’s characters in his films from the early 1960s.

The film’s camera work and editing are evident from the opening scene of the film. In this initial scene, a sustained tracking shot, the camera twirls around Juan, a figure who serves as Chiron’s surrogate father, and who later becomes an iconthe adult Chiron aims to emulate and embody. Another memorable sequence, which appears twice in the film, is a shot of Chiron’s mother, backlit in pink neon lights, screaming at her son and calling him a faggot. The first time we see this pivotal scene, his mother’s screams are muted, reflecting the young Chiron’s incomprehension of his mother’s hurtful words. The second time we see the scene it is in the adult Chiron’s dream, yet in this oneiric version his mother’s visceral hatred and outrage rings out in full force.

Black filmmakers have engaged with black masculinity in a variety of ways since the Civil Rights Movement. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) explores the masculinity of a working class African American man in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as he struggles to make ends meet at his brutal job at the slaughterhouse, while he simultaneously strives to provide for his family. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) depicts the evolution of the charismatic leader, whose masculinity, like Chiron’s, malleable. Ava DuVernay’s more recent Selma (2015), portrays the figure of Martin Luther King through an elegiac and humanist lens. He is both a hero and a man with failings like any other human being. Jenkins’ gut-wrenching film about an enigmatic, poor, southern, and gay black man is a significant contribution to this filmic legacy of black masculinity on screen and is sure to be a cornerstone of America’s cinematic cannon.

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running Time: 110 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: A24/Plan B Entertainment

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Morris from America (2016)

Morris in Germany, surviving any way he can

By Zeke Trautenberg

Hip hop unites the introverted thirteen-year-old Morris (played with subtlety and economy of emotion by Markees Christmas) and his widowed father, Curtis (the ever-funny and vulnerable Craig Robinson). The close and playful relationship between father and son is encapsulated by the first scene of the film, in which they argue over the virtues of Jeru the Damaja’s 1993 hypnotic “Come Clean.” (“Freaky freaky freaky freaky flow / Control the mic like Fidel Castro”). The two live in the decidedly un-gangster city of Heidelberg, Germany. With its red rooftops and idyllic setting along the Rhine, Heidelberg presents a stark juxtaposition to Morris’s Bronx-inflected hip hop fantasies.

Hartigan’s film hews closely to the typical structure of the coming-of-age film, with its interweaving arcs of romance and internal and external conflict, that culminate in the protagonist’s self-realization and growth. However, Morris form America does not replicate the genre so much as use its conventions to explore themes of race, masculinity, and fatherhood during a time when being black and from America is a struggle for the moral right to exist, let alone engage in civic life. Amid these serious themes, Hartigan adds playful visual motifs, like a scene of museum patrons and statues bobbing their heads in tandem to the music from Morris’s headphones. Meanwhile, the film’s superb soundtrack, which features songs by hip hop artist Jay Stone among others, captures Morris’s New York bravado and his struggles to adapt and to fit in.

With his brown skin, doughy features, and Yankees hat, Morris plainly stands out in Heidelberg. His dad, who works as a coach for the local soccer team, is his sole friend and confidant. Morris passes the laconic days of summer walking around the idyllic city on the Rhine listening to hip hop and taking German-language classes with his good-natured teacher Inka (Carla Juri). Aware of her Morris’s loneliness, Inka encourages Morris to visit the local youth center so that he can make friends and practice his German. At the center, Morris sits removed from the other teenagers and ignores insults from a boy who calls him “Kobe Bryant” and asks if he plays basketball. This is the first of a series of racially-tinged insults and jibes that Morris bears with a mix of stoicism and exasperation. It is only when Morris’s disastrous performance during the youth center’s talent show that his frustration turns into rage.

For the German teenagers at the youth center, Morris’s blackness, Americanness, and masculinity are refracted through popular culture and consumption. The young American is labeled a basketball player, a “good dancer,” a rapper, and a drug user, but these superficial stereotypes and discrimination reflect the limits of cosmopolitanism and openness in twenty-first century Germany. In this vein, although Morris from America does not allude to the massive influx of migrants and refugees to the country that coincided with the production of the film in the summer of 2015, the racism—overt or otherwise—directed at Morris reflect broader tensions underlying the country’s social fabric.

Morris’s relationship with Katrin (Lina Keller), a rebellious blonde girl who he meets at the center similarly reflects the intertwined relationship between Morris’s blackness and his Americanness. Katrin alternatively teases and shows affection for the American boy, who seems to represent a rebuke of her beautiful, but monotonous city. After meeting Morris, she invites him to a party and then humiliates him by spraying his pants with a water gun. Although she later tells Morris this was a prank meant to be reciprocated, the young American does not get the joke. This pattern of acceptance and rejection continues throughout the film, but the good-hearted, forbearing Morris recognizes that the impulsive Katrin is not mean-spirited. She too is anxious to escape “German dickheads” of Heidelberg. Although Morris’s infatuation with Katrin is never entirely reciprocated, she takes hold of his adolescent psyche.

Parallel with Morris’s struggles with identity, we see his single father wrestle with how to raise his adolescent son. Having lived in Germany during his career as a player, Curtis is aware of its history and the latent danger of intolerance and violence aimed at men of color. While Curtis’s exhortations to his son to let his dad know when he is staying out late are understandable to any parent, they gain a sense of urgency in Morris’s case, as his adolescent naiveté belies his earnestness and self-composure. Curtis does not aim to stifle his son’s growth into adulthood or his creativity. Rather, he urges his son to engage honestly with his passions, be they rap, German girls, or otherwise.

The complicity between father and son is exemplified by a self-recorded mixtape Curtis gives to his son. When Morris discovers that the cassette contains his father clumsily rapping a Notorious B.I.G. cover, he dismisses his dad’s short-lived music ambitions. Ironically, his father has the similar criticism for his son. After reading a set of conceited and misogynist lyrics in Morris’s notebook, Curtis ironically remarks: “You need to rap about how you don’t know shit.” He encourages his son to wax poetic about his own experiences, a message that the budding young man takes to heart, declaring in rhyme before an audience of ecstatic German techno fans: “Morris in Germany surviving any way I can.” However, his father would not have him survive on his own. Rather, Curtis says, they should stick together, because after all they are “the only brothers in Heidelberg.”

Director: Chad Hartigan

Running Time: 91 minutes

Country: USA/Germany

Photos: Beachside Films/Lichtblick Meida/INDI Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)