We could argue from now until the Oscars about whether Moonlight is the best movie of 2016. Almost anything one tries to say about the indie film, including this–a young black man struggles with a messed-up home life while grappling with his conflicted sexuality–threatens to box it up, standardize and diminish it. Moonlight is more alive, beautiful and powerful than that. It’s one of the most essential movies in modern cinema.
It’s also blowing up at the box-office. This past weekend, released by A24 (The Witch, The Lobster) without major studio backing, the film made an astonishing $414,740 in just four theaters, the year’s biggest per-theater opening weekend. Nobody told the audience to see it; they found it. And one of the ways Moonlight got here is by ignoring virtually every Hollywood rule for hit-making.
For starters, it’s rated R (the big bucks are made by PG-13 fare), and it’s directed not by a household name but by sophomore director Barry Jenkins, who didn’t adapt it from a graphic novel or best-selling book but from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Its knockout cast, including Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome and Mahershala Ali, aren’t on Hollywood’s big list of must-haves, though they have every right to be. And there isn’t a single non-black face in the entire movie. Let that sink in for a second or two.
Nor did Moonlight have a pop-culture titan like Oprah Winfrey or Ellen Degeneres stumping for it, declaring it a Major Cultural Event. And yet it’s just that, because it deconstructs black masculinity while dramatizing how mass incarceration and governmental neglect have gutted places like Liberty City in Miami, Florida. And although it is set in the 1980s, it lays waste to electioneering concepts like Hope and Change.
It’s also a movie that takes on characters and topics Hollywood tends to shy away from, sensationalize or trivialize. Like gayness. Like race. Like people forced by accidents of birth and diminished opportunities to live on the margins by dealing drugs and hooking. Unlike any number of hopped-up, big-budget mainstream films, it tells its tale daringly, like a three-act play with different actors playing the center character in different stages of his life.
Moonlight avoids such standard-issue film-school stuff as likable characters, familiar arcs, fiery finales and neat resolutions. In fact, this is one of the most open-ended movies I’ve ever seen. Instead of demonizing typical targets like, say, drug dealer Juan (played by Ali), who takes the main character under his wing, McCrane and Jenkins make Juan a protective, complex character, a father figure. A scene in which he submerges a young boy in the water, simultaneously teaching him to swim, baptizing him and encouraging to grab hold of his own identity, is one for the ages.
The movie is of its moment and completely timeless. Quiet but lacerating, it dares to be about something without ever announcing its nobility or self-importance. Watching it unfold, you feel like you’ve been here before, and yet its perspective is completely fresh. Masterpieces don’t typically survive committee-think. Moonlight, like its mostly silent central character, is its own creation—defiant, ornery, glorious.
Mainstream Hollywood may not learn much from Moonlight. I’m sure it won’t be long before its director and cast get offered gigs doing cookie-cutter crime series, sitcoms and sci-fi franchises—everything Moonlight is not. But, as we saw last weekend, audiences are going to hear what it has to say, loud and clear.