In too many black coming-of-age films, black people don’t have lives, they have agendas. In 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” we get lectured on inner-city crime. 2006’s “ATL” educates us on growing up poor. In 2015’s “Dope,” the main character actually addresses the audience to judge how we expect a black teenager to live. Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” has no agendas. It doesn’t need them. It tells the story of a gay black kid’s coming of age in Miami so clearly and sensitively that it becomes your story.
Working from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins divides “Moonlight” into three acts. Three different actors play the protagonist Chiron at different points in his life.
In the first act, he’s nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert). He lives with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), but finds guidance from a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). In the second, Chiron is an ungainly teenager (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggling with bullies and his closeted sexuality. The final chapter shows us a grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), his now muscular shoulders burdened by the emotional baggage he’s carried all these years.
In Jenkins’s three Chirons, you see the same body language, the same facial tics, the same eyes that project a battered soul.
In capturing Chiron’s experience, Jenkins creates real people. His first feature, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” revealed this gift. In that film, he patiently followed a black man and woman in their 20’s around a gentrifying San Francisco as they walked and talked. Their conversations covered the changing racial makeup of the city, what it means to be black, and how that meaning changes in different situations.
Instead of being a lecture, these ideas flow naturally out of the characters’ interactions. Jenkins writes black people you can imagine bumping into on the street or on the subway.
That authenticity blesses “Moonlight’s” cast beyond the three newcomers who play Chiron. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland as a childhood friend of Chiron’s, and even singer Janelle Monáe as Chiron’s surrogate mother, suggest deep pools of feeling and lived experience with just a glance.
The film’s craft complements the cast. Cinematography, music, sound design and editing combine to cast a spell that slows us down and draws us in. The film seems to breathe in the summer air. Deep sky blues, pearly shades of white, and the orange glow of street lights wash over us like ocean waves gently splashing ashore.
And behind it all stands Jenkins, whose artistry since “Medicine” has risen from observation to poetry. His twirling camera turns the rough-and-tumble play of black boys into ballet. His wide compositions convey Chiron’s isolation. His gaze savors the telling detail: a look shared between two old friends, as if searching each other’s face for traces of the boy they knew, or a hand clenching in the sand, shivers of desire running through it.
Coming out of the film, I recalled these images so vividly they could have been memories from my life. A few of them are. I know the childhood roughhousing that Jenkins depicts. And I know the fear that can grip boys who act tough so as not to appear “soft.” But anyone watching “Moonlight” will know the struggle to become who you want to be.
The beauty in Jenkins’s film comes from empathizing with Chiron’s experience whether you’ve known a part of it or not. And when his old hurts and buried desires rush back to the surface in “Moonlight’s” climactic scenes, you’ll feel so close to Chiron by then that you’ll want to reach out and hold him.
You’ll want to hold onto “Moonlight,” too.
The best of “The Birth of Nation,” which Nate Parker directed, co-wrote and stars in, rattles you with its power and conviction. You come away from Parker’s film, which took seven years to get to the big screen, feeling his heartbeat in every frame.
Some viewers will dismiss “The Birth of a Nation” as just another slave movie. But unlike, say, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” which stands back and observes atrocity with grim dispassion, “The Birth of a Nation’s” big emotional moments and religious motifs share more in common with films like “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ” (indeed, Mel Gibson is thanked in the end credits).
In dramatizing Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt, which resulted in the deaths of some 60 white men, women and children, Parker presents his protagonist as a Christ figure. In key moments, Turner stands in the pose of being crucified. Sound design turns a slaver’s whip into a snake, and when Turner strikes the first blow of the rebellion, Parker shoots the scene as if he’s coming out of the darkness into the light.
Parker draws us into this spiritual journey through a strong performance as the rebellion leader, who learns to read the Bible at a young age before becoming a field hand and preacher in his adulthood. As Turner, Parker commands the screen in his quietest moments and often refrains from overselling his growing outrage at slavery’s cruel hypocrisies. Parker, his cinematographer and production team reflect this restraint in the film’s visual beauty and production design, which immerse us in 1831 Virginia.
The film’s musical score exerts less restraint, often telling us exactly what emotion to feel and when. Parker’s handling of Turner’s religious visions and dreams (some of which he movingly links to his African roots) also feels heavy-handed. Images of black angels and bleeding corn may provoke eye-rolls rather than chills.
Real chills arrive when Turner’s master Samuel Turner, well played by Armie Hammer, pimps him out to nearby plantations to spread God’s word. In reality, the neighboring plantation owners mean for his preaching to pacify their slaves amid whispers of defiance and insurrection.
Scenes depicting the physical brutalities of slavery, the most excruciating being the torture and force-feeding of a shackled slave, will have some viewers watching through their fingers. But “The Birth of a Nation” examines the psychological violence of the institution as well. A relatively benevolent character like Samuel Turner, whose desperation to keep his family’s land afloat turns him crueler with time, does as much damage to Turner’s soul as the wretches who brutalize his wife Cherry, played by a sympathetic Aja Naomi King. In one of the film’s most telling moments, Samuel whips Nat for baptizing a white man. In this scene, we see that, in slavery, even God’s law bows before the white man’s law.
But “The Birth of a Nation” examines how religion could both subjugate and liberate a people. As Turner conveniently explains to a group of fellow slaves during a covert gathering, “For every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another one demanding our freedom.”
In a swift two hours, Hammer and King sketch out characters that occasionally resonate when Turner doesn’t dominate the frame. The climactic battle scenes provide effective, if uncomplicated, catharsis. This catharsis soon turns to horror when, in a series of terrible images, paranoid whites take their fears out on any black person they can find. Here, one feels the film rushing to its conclusion rather than milking these moments for all they’re worth.
Still, coming a century after D.W. Griffith’s film of the same name, which glorified white supremacy, viewers should find much to value in this “Birth of a Nation.” From the first frame to the last, we eagerly root for Turner and never question his righteousness. We may wish for a more complex reckoning with Turner’s decision to slaughter his owners. But when Turner is beaten, it’s as if we’ve been whipped. And when Turner takes his revenge, we can almost feel our own fingers curl around the axe handle.
For many people, such moral certainty eludes Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin (Celestin shares a story credit on the film). It recently came out that a woman who accused Parker and Celestin of sexual assault in 1999 committed suicide in 2012. Parker was acquitted of the charges and Celestin convicted. After serving several months in prison, Celestin later overturned his conviction on appeal, and the case was thrown out when the accuser declined to re-testify.
The case and its aftermath will likely shadow the film throughout its theatrical run. But if the moral stature of Nate Parker has been been tarnished, the moral stature of his film is irrefutable.
The terror and horror of this day fifteen years ago permanently traumatized this country in a way that, like many momentous events in America’s history, has seeped into the national psyche and been filtered out through popular culture and mass media. Movies in particular have soaked up the imagery and political fallout of 9/11. Images that recall the destruction of the Twin Towers run rampant through many Hollywood entertainments and dramas. Films exploring terrorism, torture and homeland security crop up time and time again. When it comes to the day itself, however, Hollywood has taken awkward steps towards it, often stumbling around 9/11 or avoiding it entirely. Below is a short list of exceptional films that dared to come to grips with 9/11 or its aftermath.
“Fahrenheit 9/11,” directed by Michael Moore
If there’s one filmmaker who will forever be linked to 9/11 and, subsequently, the War on Terror, it is documentarian Michael Moore. Moore believes that, when the towers crumbled, so too did the morality and integrity of the Bush administration. In this then controversial 2004 documentary, Moore takes this administration to task. Mixing wit, goofy asides and powerful images, Moore unleashes a provocative indictment of the policies and deceit that led to the War in Iraq at a time when much of America fully supported Iraq’s occupation. Moore also attacks the mainstream media for what he felt was a slanted and inaccurate analysis and coverage of the rationale for war and its consequences. Today, much of it will play as common knowledge for many viewers. But try not be be unsettled by a passage showing George W. Bush sitting in silence in a Florida classroom after learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the seconds ticking away. And a montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” that concludes with footage of one of the planes hitting the towers will freeze the blood. The film remains the highest grossing documentary of all time.
“25th Hour,” directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee made this brilliant film just a year after the towers fell. At a time when studios and directors rushed to erase any images of the Twin Towers from movies filmed before 9/11 or avoided their absence in shots of the New York City skyline, the New York native put that absence front and center. This absence haunts the narrative. The film, about a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) enjoying his final days of freedom before a seven-year prison sentence, tackles 9/11 as a state of mind, or more appropriately, a state of mourning. The film opens with a shot of twin floodlights where the towers once stood. The score by Terence Blanchard is sorrowful and elegiac, a mood that has seeped into the bones of the characters, affecting how they talk and interact. Anger, despair and dissolution blanket the proceedings. In one scene, two of Monty’s friends grapple with the realization that he will never be the same after his jail time. They talk in an apartment complex that overlooks the devastation of the World Trade Center. This grim shadow of reality on the drama elevates the emotions of “25th Hour” to almost operatic levels. Watch for the amazing sequence in which Monty looks into a mirror and screams “F-yous” at every ethnic, social and racial group in New York before finally arriving at himself. A better cinematic encapsulation of America’s seething anger and frustration post 9/11 you will not see.
“United 93,” directed by Paul Greengrass
Too soon. That’s how many moviegoers felt about this 2006 film about the doomed United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers attempted to overtake the hijackers. But British filmmaker Paul Greengrass brought a breathtaking immediacy and sense of veracity to the film. Greengrass’s achievement neither demonized the terrorists or romanticized the passengers’ actions. And he narrows his view only to what happened on the plane. Greengrass tells the story in present tense; we know only as much as the characters (played by mostly unknown actors) do. Greengrass also hires many of the flight attendants and airline personnel to play themselves. Scene after visceral scene will punch you in the gut. But if you imagine the irresponsible roads this movie could’ve taken, you’ll realize the way Greengrass made his movie is the most tasteful and honorable tribute to this tragedy.
“Margaret,” directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Studio Fox Searchlight shamefully mishandled this masterful drama. Shooting began in 2005 before it went through a number of editing jobs, multiple lawsuits and a rather quiet limited release in 2011 before almost vanishing in obscurity. Obscurity, however, is the last place one should find what is perhaps the most searching and searing depiction of a post 9/11 New York on film. Like “25th Hour,” a mood of post traumatic stress permeates Lonergan’s movie, which concerns the tragic consequences a terrible accident has on the life of a privileged Manhattan teen named Lisa (Anna Paquin) and the people in her life. The way the accident punctures Lisa’s sense of security and self and fills her with bitterness and uncertainty mirrors America’s own grappling with such feelings over the past decade. In the film, these feelings complicate and corrupt Lisa’s relationships with family and strangers alike, most heatedly in intense classroom exchanges between her and a Muslim student that touch on American nationalism and religious radicalism. Beyond its timely subtext, this film captures the agonies and difficulties of communication, how we so often use words to wound or evade each other. Scenes play out with the raw and messy rhythms of real life. When it ends, one feels like the characters are still fighting to be understood, still fighting to understand themselves and a world that seems much more dangerous than it once did.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The defining film on the War on Terror so far, Kathryn Bigelow’s tough, uncompromising procedural tackled the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The opening to the film is chilling: a black screen accompanied by real 9-1-1 calls of terrified individuals trapped inside the World Trade Center. We will then cut to a CIA agent torturing a terrorist suspect. The message in the juxtaposition rings loud and clear: The torture of terrorist suspects following the 9/11 attacks were more than just the U.S. dealing in “the dark side,” as Dick Cheney declared, but in many ways a reprisal for the cruelty enacted upon us. Bigelow swam these tricky waters in this 2012 Best Picture nominee. Bigelow got in trouble from critics and politicians alike when they called the authenticity of some of the film’s plot points into question. Bigelow seemed to want it both ways, stressing her freedom of interpretation as an artist yet asserting her fidelity to the truth. If the film doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny as a matter of fact, it’s riveting as cinema. Bigelow stages scenes of violence and suspense with elegance and razor sharp clarity. And as the obsessively driven CIA agent Maya, Jessica Chastain perfectly conveys our society’s frustration, fatigue and need for closure. You know how it ends (spoiler alert: we got ‘em), but film’s conclusion doesn’t cry “‘Merica!” One gets a sense that, the mission over, Maya doesn’t know what to do next. The implication: neither does anyone else.