Shot to prominence with his second cinematic feature film Moonlight in 2016, here are my spoiler free reviews of Barry's two directed films to date, the brilliant Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 followed by his Oscar laden follow up Moonlight 8 years later.
"So what do two black folks do on a Sunday afternoon?"
The few minutes preceding the opening credits of Barry Jenkins' debut feature set the tone entirely for the coming hour and a half, with long periods of silence punctuated by awkward, nervous glances or brief fractured conversations, unusual and oblique camera angles of routine everyday occurrences, majestic wide shots of the city of San Francisco from high upon a hill and all conveyed to the audience via desaturated black and white cinematography. With only glimpses of occasional colour (mainly pale, saturated reds), the film is entirely in black and white and covers one single sunny Sunday in the lives of Micah and Jo, who whilst awkwardly dealing with the aftermath of a one night stand now spend the following day together in search of the American Dream, of black culture and their shared roots, of lust and friendship and common ground in a city in which they remain a statistical and cultural minority. A lost wallet throws these disparate characters back together after a tense opening to the film whereby no words are spoken by either Micah or Jo for the first three minutes and only then the tension is broken by the host of the party they are quietly leaving from. The first word uttered between the two is an awkward "sorry" before Micah invites Jo for a coffee before also admitting "I'm sorry. It's kind of embarrassing but I forgot your name". Sharing a taxi and very little in the way of conversation, their rendezvous is at an end before Jo's lost wallet intervenes and brings the following two characters together for a day in the sunshine:
"Micah" (Wyatt Cenac) On the surface Micah is a smiling free spirited aquarium installer but bubbling under his outer surface is a recently broken hearted man seeking love and perhaps more interesting and intriguing, his own self acceptance as a black man. Definitions and labels pervade the majority of his thinking, whether it's the legitimacy of interracial dating, his unease at being only within "7% of the population" or his fractious relationship with the city in which he resides and perfectly encapsulated in his outburst of "I love the city. Hate the city. No, I love the city". Micah has a big, joyous heart but this is so often lost in his battle for acceptance in a city and a culture overtaken by Hippies, Yuppies and Hipsters.
(Tracey Heggins) Struggling to deal with both the moral dilemma and the hangover of the previous evening, Jo is awkwardly wordless and cold at the film's beginning as she seeks a discreet retreat from her rendezvous with Micah. Her first smile, as her overnight beau sings an awful acoustic lament of "Won't You Be My Neighbour?" breaks the ice of the film and that of Jo and we quickly discover there is far more to her than initially meets the eye. With a white boyfriend working in London and both a working interest in an art gallery and as a t-shirt maker, Jo is far more at home in her own skin than Micah, being both metropolitan and indeed cosmopolitan, Jo seemingly enjoys her life free from angst at the city or the world around her. Her smiles truly illuminate the film.
In a film of only 18 total characters, Medicine for Melancholy is a true two handed film in every sense as Micah and Jo are constantly on screen and only not visible in one short scene regarding the paucity of affordable housing in San Francisco. As such, it falls to both Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins to propel the film in their respective roles and boy do they both achieve this! As described above they are clearly both different people from differing backgrounds and points of view on the world around them. This is played brilliantly throughout the film by the actors themselves but equally through Jenkins thoughtful and clever narrative strand of mirroring the lives of the other as we see each of the protagonist's apartments, style of life, their accomplishment on the acoustic guitar and even their Myspace pages. This may sound trite but seen in the context of the film, the mirror to each other's lives and in such a short span of time is brilliantly employed, as are some of the signature scenes of the film, be it a joyful stroll through the city in the sunshine, a carousel ride or the most pleasing scene of all, the dancing lovers giving their all in a nightclub at the end of a day they will both truly never forget. Here, the music in the film comes to a glorious crescendo with "Shake Shake Shake" by White Denim but there are so many wonderful music choices throughout from "New Year's Kiss" through many more until the end credits and the brilliantly simple and haunting "Tonight Was a Disaster".
Drawing on the pertinent issues of the day, from the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco due to the changing nature and gentrification of the city, black minority culture, the slave trade and the widening gap between the rich and poor of every city across the world, Barry Jenkins' debut film is all this and so much more. A beautiful love story. A beautiful cosmic accident. A beautiful film! And one which, when you've seen it once, you may well turn around immediately and want to watch again.
"My name is Chiron. People call me Little"
Nominated for eight Oscars at the 2017 Awards Ceremony, Moonlight triumphed in three major categories: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins' screenplay based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's original semi autobiographical story and Mahershala Ali for his superb performance as an Actor in a Supporting Role. A triptych film in three very distinctive Acts covering the shy, angst ridden growing up of our main protagonist Chiron, Moonlight is clearly a deeply personal film for both the Director and the Author of the original source material and summed up brilliantly by Jenkins in February 2017:
Split across three named Acts entitled "Little", "Chiron" and "Black", Moonlight brilliantly portrays the tortured growing process of Chiron from young boy through to adolescent teenager and finally to his late twenties. It's certainly true to be classed as a coming of age drama however this is also shot through the prism of the sexual awakening of a young homosexual man struggling with the dysfunctional upbringing of a single mother addicted to drugs and being a painfully self aware and shy young man who retreats into his shell as he is relentlessly bullied and picked on. As above, this is a particularly personal story for the Director to tell and Jenkins has managed to portray this in a real masterly fashion, employing numerous extreme close ups and really putting the audience into the metaphorical shoes of Chiron in the process. I was also particularly taken with a number of swirling and rotating steadicam shots in each Act of the film, not always of Chiron at the centre of the shot but always at the crux of my thinking and his possible reactions to the circling picture painted by the Director. There is one use of deeply affecting silence merged with muffled sounds and sensations that heighten Chiron's emotional state and every one of these simple, yet effective ideas draw you as an audience deeper and deeper into a central, personal and often traumatic story. I also loved the continual juxtaposition employed of differing worlds colliding in this young man's life, that of being surrounded on all corners by a drug and substance fuelled life and that of the strong familial adults around him. The struggles with the early realisations of his homosexuality set against the predominantly heterosexual society and people around him. The pain of growing up and of experimentation and the guilty angst that can bring and the neighbourhood balance between a honest and illegal means of existence.
A brief Act by Act appraisal follows and should you have read this far I can only sincerely encourage you to see Moonlight for it is a sublime and moving piece of cinematic magic:
Entitled "Little", the film's opening Act sets the table for the events that follow in the life of young Chiron, played here magnificently by Alex Hibbert. Hibbert's performance has been a little overlooked since the film's release and of the awards that have followed in it's wake, however in an almost wordless role Hibbert etches the angst of the young Chiron perfectly with his often downward glances and especially his questioning and innocent eye contact with others. The eyes are the window to the soul and this is writ large in Hibbert's portrayal as he almost compels you to watch him. He truly gives a quiet, mesmerising performance in the film's opening Act of 36 minutes. First captured on another steadicam shot by Director Jenkins as he runs frantically to avoid school bullies, he barricades himself into a boarded up and disused house before being found by "Juan" (Mahershala Ali). In another of the film's many brilliant juxtapositions, Juan takes the young boy to his heart and completely at odds with his tough exterior as a local neighbourhood drug dealer. Offering a meal and a ride home, Juan pointedly exclaims "I can't have you running around these dope holes" and eventually gaining the young boy's trust after introducing him to girlfriend "Teresa" (Janelle Monae) he becomes a short term (and much needed) surrogate Father figure in a role that Mahershala Ali deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Their joint scenes are an innocence filled joy at times with Juan's huge laugh bringing occasional smiles from the young Chiron and their scene at the beach one of the film's many highlights, as is their awkward discussion at the dinner table. Considered "soft" even by his only real school friend "Kevin" (Jaden Piner), Chiron is painfully aware of the bullying directed towards him yet has to fend for himself in every aspect of his young life and unable to gain the parental reassurance from his Mother "Paula" (Naomie Harris) who often remains frantically on edge and completely absent from his life.
Now a high school teenager, Chiron is played in Act 2 brilliantly by Ashton Sanders and continues to be haunted by nightmares of his younger days as well as dealing with an acceptance of his sexuality amid continuing bullying and harassment. With zero parental backup, Chiron finds solace with a continuing friendship with Teresa, with Janelle Monae coming into her own in this Act and excelling as a further surrogate parental figure for the teenage Chiron. Still troubled and bullied relentlessly by "Terrel" (Patrick Decile) his only safe space to be himself is with the calming influence of Teresa who reminds the young man there is "All love and all pride in this house" despite her own troubles. Still ostensibly a loner and alone with his thoughts, Chiron has kept one solitary friendship growing up, with Kevin,(now played here by Jharrel Jerome), a friendship that soon becomes intimate but not before Chiron's heartbreaking admission "I should have cried too much sometimes I feel like I'm just gonna turn into drops". Ashton Sanders performance as the teenage Chiron is mighty impressive, again a performance seen very much through his eyes and timid gestures but one that simmers with the silent scream of rage that pervades the young Chiron.
By Act 3, entitled "Black" after the affectionate nickname given to Chiron by his friend Kevin, he has seemingly on the surface now come full circle and is eerily reminiscent of his early mentor Juan complete with car, gold bling and a harder more resilient character as an Atlanta drug dealer. Now an adult and probably ten years on from Act 2, Chiron is now portrayed effortlessly in another sublime performance from Trevante Rhodes. Two telephone calls affect Chiron's life. The first is from his estranged Mother Paula who is now in rehabilitation and recovery from drugs and desperate to see her son again and the shared scene between Mother and Son is heartrending from beginning to end before a second telephone call reunites Chiron with his old friend Kevin who jokingly notes that Chiron may have changed on the outside but "you ain't changed a damn bit. You still can't say more than three words at a time!".
I've expanded on more of the story than I usually do with my blogs but I've still left numerous strands and plot points out of the above appraisal, however I have elongated the Act by Act exposition as an appreciation of a truly brilliant film and a hope that you dear reader may be intrigued enough to watch this for either the first time or enjoy it all over again. Two performances in the final Act deserve special praise, that of Andre Holland as the repentant and remorseful lifelong friend Kevin and Naomie Harris' thunderous performance as Chiron's unhinged Mother Paula. Harris' performance garnered her an Oscar nomination in 2017, one of eight in total for this incredible film, a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits and I feel sure will go down in cinematic history in the years to come as one of the finest films of all time.