With “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins signs a poignant chronicle that begins in the streets of Liberty City. A disadvantaged district of Miami in which the filmmaker grew up, and which he managed to put forward.
Moonlight: a poignant chronicle
In the early 2000s, after the death of his mother from AIDS, Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote a semi-autobiographical play entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. For a long time, this work remained unexplored until Barry Jenkins discovered it through the art collective Borscht, in Miami.
After discussing with the author, the filmmaker decides to adopt it and embarks on writing what will be his second film, after Medicine for Melancholy. Released in 2017, Moonlight retraces three significant periods in the life of Chiron.
The feature film first looks at his childhood on the streets of Liberty City, a poor district of Miami. The little boy meets his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who tries to save him. He tries to provide her with an education, considering that her mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict, is unable to do so.
As a teenager, Chiron becomes aware of her romantic feelings for her friend Kevin. Finally, having become an adult and freshly released from prison, the young man sells drugs in Atlanta. He no longer speaks to his mother and has forged a shell. The latter shatters when Kevin reconnects with him.
Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes each lend their traits to Chiron. Janelle Monáe and André Holland complete the cast of the drama awarded three Oscars: Best Film, Best Screenplay in a Supporting Role for Mahershala Ali, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Barry Jenkins’ return to his roots
Like Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkins grew up in Liberty City. According to Point, the director has grown up in the same HLM as the author, the oldest in the United States, built-in 1937. By also drawing on his memories, the filmmaker wanted to accentuate the cosmopolitan aspect of the city. Cinematographer James Laxton explains about it, quoted by Allocinated:
In Miami, it feels like a thousand different worlds collide. Caribbean and Cuban influences mingle with South American traditions; the wealthiest rub shoulders with the poorest; and even the bright colors used to paint houses and buildings are specific to the city.
Barry Jenkins adds that he wanted to highlight the poetic dimension of Miami which is felt in particular through the colors of its architectural landscape, as well as the looks of the characters:
The plot is grounded in reality but has also been given a dreamlike dimension in many ways. For us, this film is like a hallucination. We wanted that Moonlight immerses us in the heart of the city. Characters often look the viewer straight in the eye, as if to indicate they are with them in Miami.
It also goes through the fact of insisting on “the unexpected brilliance of this district” which he knows so well, which contrasts with “the serious subjects” of the drama.
A film that put Liberty City back in the spotlight
After the victory of Moonlight at the Oscars, Natalie Joy Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Center at Miami Northwestern Senior High School where Barry Jenkins studied, is delighted that the film can be giving hope to the people of Liberty City. She thus declared to AFP:
We are strong, we are smart, we are talented, we are gifted and we do what we have to do. We just need our kids to see the positive side of Liberty City. And great things are happening in Liberty City, as you saw last night.
Moses Shumow, assistant professor in the department of communications at Florida International University, says about the feature film:
It doesn’t sugarcoat reality, but it goes beyond that, raising questions about sexuality and questions about poverty and how you escape it and what it means to you. For me it’s so positive that another story can emerge. And that is what has gained worldwide recognition.