Tag: Andre Holland

Moonlight (2016)

Mahershala Ali is a mentor with mixed impact in Barry Jenkins tender Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Trevante Rhodes (Adult Chiron/”Black”), Ashton Saunders (Teenage Chiron), Alex Hibbert (Young Chiron/”Little”), André Holland (Adult Kevin), Jharrel Jerome (Teenage Kevin), Jaden Piner (Young Kevin), Naomie Harris (Paula), Mahershala Ali (Juan), Janelle Monáe (Teresa), Patrick Decile (Terrel)

What makes us the people we are? So many things in our environment, personalities and influences can shape the people we are. Imagine, though, how much we might end up twisting and manipulating ourselves, if some of the core parts of what made us who we are, ran against the expectations of our community. It’s the fascinating, poetic heart of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ astonishingly tender Oscar-winner, which shows a side of the Black American experience that so rarely makes it to the screen.

In three acts, we see the life of Chiron, from a young child, to a confused teenager to a muscular, adult drug dealer. Played by a different actor at each age, each self-contained half-an-hour-or-so act sees him struggle with understanding who he is, and deal with the impact that different people have on shaping the man he is, from his mother Paula (Naomi Harris), a woman embracing a destructive drug addiction, to his mentor as a young boy, the thoughtful drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his caring girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Perhaps the core influence however is childhood friend Kevin, the love of Chiron’s life. Because Chiron is struggling with the fact he is gay, in a community where macho masculinity is all important.

Jenkins’ thoughtful and beautifully made film is a wonderful coming-of-age story, that explores deeply emotional territory with sensitivity and care. Jenkins invests the entire story with a beautiful sense of poetry and an echoing, longing sense of sadness. The entire film is constructed of paths not taken, of lost opportunities and painful misunderstandings. It asks profound questions around the people who inspire us, the impact our parents can have, the damaging impact of trying to conform with the world, and the struggle we can take to understand ourselves.

Because the main theme that runs through each act is Chiron’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. As a young boy it’s something he’s beginning to be aware of – and the distance it brings, knowing he’s different from his fellow kids. It’s there in the cruel treatment he receives from his mother. As a young boy, there is the potential that his life could go another way – something that his mentor figure, drug dealer Juan, detects (perhaps, the film subtly implies, because it echoes lost opportunities and ignored feelings in Juan’s own life).

The middle act shows how these chances can be truly lost, how our teenage experiences can shake us. Because Chiron is different in a way that will never gain true acceptance in such a macho environment, where Chiron has it enforced to him time and time again that his sexuality is a weakness, something that dirties him and makes him less than others. Jenkins’ film offers a beautiful view of how a teenager can be made to feel ashamed of themselves and the person they are – to the extent that his reaction after his first sexual experience with his childhood friend Kevin is to apologise. Chiron hasn’t been given the emotional confidence or language to be comfortable with who he is – Juan is the only person who has ever told him that there is nothing wrong with being gay. Chiron instead has to cope with isolation, guilt and shame – emotions that Jenkins’ beautifully structured middle-chapters show, push him more and more towards anger and rage.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Chiron as a young adult has turned himself as much as possible into what his community believes “a man should be”. It’s striking how similar he looks to Juan – from his dress and jewelry, to his muscular manner and his profession. The skinny boy of the first two chapters has become a muscle-bound, intimidating young man. What hasn’t changed is his emotional distance, his isolation. In fact, what has been magnified is his desire to be loved, to feel a connection. A connection that he arguably hasn’t felt for over a decade.

The film can speak to anyone who has had problems fitting in, who feels different from others. Jenkins fits it beautifully into a community he was familiar with, a Black community (there isn’t a single white person anywhere in the film) that values qualities of masculinity and aggression that run counter to Chiron’s own personality, but which he is forced to conform with. This is such a compromised community that the person who understands Chiron most – the drug dealer Juan – is also a big part of the problem, supplying the drugs that are affecting his mother’s life and a leading part of the violent, macho world Chiron lives in.

This mentor relationship is the beating heart of the much of the film – helped by Mahershala Ali’s wonderfully judged (Oscar-winning) performance as Juan. Juan is a man of contrasts, thoughtful and tender, understanding of the internal struggles of a young man (has he dealt with them himself), but also moving in a violent and destructive world, a leading part of the criminal community that dominates Chiron’s world. He offers enough of a lost opportunity for Chiron to have reshaped his life – while also propping up the world that will crush him.

Juan is certainly a big part of destroying Chiron’s mother Paula. Naomi Harris is superbly damaged, raw and uncontrolled as an addict we see disintegrate over the first two chapters until she settles into the fragile older woman plagued with guilt in the final act. This is a mother who offers no love and support to her son, who denigrates him for his differences and builds a world around him that has no love or understanding in it. Her collapse is as much a criticism of the horrors and compromises of this community as it is a terrible warning story.

Jenkins’ film looks phenomenal, with a style that marries poetry and realism. It can feature young boys playing in the park with aggressive naturalness, underscored with Mozart. There is a beautiful running theme of water, cropping up at key moments of Chiron’s life: from the swimming lesson Juan gives him, to the cold water he cleans his face in after a teenage beating, to the adult Chiron largely drinking only water (perhaps to make sure he never slips and reveals too much of himself). It’s a gentle touch – reflected as well in the cool blues that frequently cover the screen, like the wash of water.

The actors portraying Chiron and Kevin are wonderful. The final act revolves around a beautifully played scene between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland as their adult versions, a low-key, but deeply emotional, conversation that sees them carefully skirt round a host of emotions that can never be expressed, partly as neither character as the emotional hinterland to use them.

Jenkin’s film won a deserved Oscar as Best Picture. It deserves it for showing us two worlds we see so little in film: both the working-class Black community, but also the life of a young gay man in modern America. It’s wonderfully judged, low-key, personal and with a slight story carries great emotional force. It gives you far more to think about and consider than you might at first expect, and makes for an eye-opening and deeply involving film.

Selma (2014)

Martin Luther King fights the good fight

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton Robinson), Stephan James (John Lewis), Wendell Pierce (Hosea Williams), Common (James Bevel), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Tim Roth (George Wallace), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper)

Tragically, for a while this film seemed to be most famous for being the poster child for “Oscar-Gate” or hashtag oscarssowhite (sorry hashtags are not my thing). Selma was the film that should have been littered with nominations. Instead it got just two – one for Picture, one for Best Song. Of the many, many snubs the most shocking were Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, particularly as other contenders up for the awards had certainly done inferior work that year . This film, however, categorically demands to be remembered in its own right – it is a fine, very moving piece of work, a dynamic history lesson that avoids preaching from a pulpit.

A lot of this comes down to the breathtaking work from David Oyelowo, who delivers one of those performances where the actor seems to transcend his skin, not just imitating Martin Luther King but inhabiting him, exploring and expressing every depth and shade. It’s a performance that stands comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln. Oyelowo’s King is a big hearted, patient man but also a shrewd political player, a family man who betrays his wife, a political campaigner who holds the big picture and the small in his mind. It’s a totally committed performance that is intensely respectful without ever feeling hagiographic.

Oyelowo’s performance also immeasurably helps the film’s structure, as this is a biography that focuses on one single key moment in its subject’s life, rather than attempting to cover the whole lot in one 2-3 hour sitting. I rather like this, as the important thing about these biopics is to understand the person at the centre, not just to tick off events in their life. Anyway this film focuses on three months in 1965: King is campaigning for equal voting rights, and planning a high-profile march across Alabama from Selma and Montgomery to pressure President Lyndon B Johnson to promote the Voting Rights Act.

This is a very powerful film, humming with a constant sense of the deep rooted injustice and oppression in America at this time. It makes no compromises in showing the violence meted out to Black Americans, but it’s the day-to-day injustice that DuVernay shows particularly well: in the opening scene, Annie Lee Cooper (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) has her carefully prepared application to vote cruelly dismissed by a smalltown clerk, gleefully and casually exploiting a succession of legal loopholes to thwart her. It’s a simple scene but amazingly powerful in its casual (unspoken) racism, and it brings to life in a few strokes the day-to-day experience of millions of people at this time.

It’s also a beautifully shot film, that uses the real-life location of the Selma bridge spectacularly. An assault on the first attempted march by mounted policeman, shrouded in tear gas, is deeply moving in its simplicity, the camera catching the brutal overreaction of the police with a journalistic eye (Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams is particularly impressive in the build-up to, and aftermath of, this sequence). Other moments of violence are equally shocking, but DuVernay never over-eggs the moment, allowing the events and the story to speak for themselves. We know how terrible some of these events are, and how disgusting the treatment of Black Americans was – the film never uses music or editing to hammer it home to us.

The film ends on the kind of high note you can only feel when injustice has been overcome and decent people triumph (punctured, DuVernay acknowledges, by the fates of some of the characters,  revealed at the end of the film. More than one of these is a gut punch – not least the death of King himself three years later). But it’s never twee, preachy or a history lesson. Instead it’s a living, breathing expression of a moment in history that wraps you up in its story. Oyelowo is of course outstanding, but there is some excellent support, not least from Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta (overlooked at the time, but outstanding), Andre Holland, Stephen James, Lorraine Toussaint and Common as King’s fellow Civil Rights leaders. Tom Wilkinson adds a lot of depth to a sometimes thinly written Johnson, while Tim Roth translates his contempt for George Wallace in a performance of slappable vileness. A beautiful and marvellous film.