Every year when awards season rolls around, the nominations are dominated by films dedicated to the lives and deeds of white men and women. So it makes the world of difference when, in certain years, a film rolls around that completely disrupts the routine and offers us something new.
The film in question this year is Moonlight, the second feature by Barry Jenkins. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and both best supporting actor and actress, it tells a coming-of-age story in three acts, as protagonist Chiron grows from adolescence to adulthood, experiencing the cruelties and joys that the world has to offer a black man.
A groundbreaking tale of masculinity, addiction and love, both sexual and platonic, Moonlight contains such striking, poetic and unforgettable images that they feel as if they must have been borne directly onto the screen from the director’s imagination. Yet Jenkins is a director who is open and passionate about the films that he loves and that have influenced Moonlight. You don’t need to have seen any of these first, but here are six films that can only enrich your experience of Jenkins’ astonishing achievement.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
Director: Charles Burnett
Oft-referenced, never quite equalled, this groundbreaking black indie by Charles Burnett is one of those films that manages to say so much through so little. Made as his UCLA graduation film, it’s a day(ish)-in-the-life look at one family living in the Watts district of South Los Angeles, in which Burnett captures the pains and pleasures of black life. While Moonlight’s scope is larger, telling its coming-of-age-narrative over several years of its protagonist’s life, its early scenes, featuring a young Chiron attempting to play with his peers, are eerily reminiscent of Killer of Sheep’s opening scene. Burnett blazed the path that Jenkins now follows.
Happy Together (1997)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Both Moonlight and Happy Together deal with estrangement in unique ways. In Wong Kar-wai’s film, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung’s turbulent couple find themselves away from the comforts of home on a visit to Argentina. Conversely, in Moonlight, Chiron tries and fails to find a home for himself – in his body, his surroundings and with his friends and family. While Jenkins is clearly visually inspired by Wong (the latter’s 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love is another reference point), what’s most notable is the way each director makes what should be a throwaway scene into a moment of deep nuance with the use of Caetano Veloso’s ‘Cucurrucucú paloma’ on the soundtrack.
Beau Travail (1999)
Director: Claire Denis
While Barry Jenkins doesn’t use Moonlight to portray purgatory as a nightclub that churns out Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’, the film definitely shares some features with Beau Travail. Routine as a form of self-preservation is a facet of the film that’s perhaps inspired by Claire Denis – while Chiron washes his face with ice water in each section of the film, Beau Travail’s soldiers preserve both their bodies and minds with their repetitive training exercises. Each film challenges and reflects on masculinity, never judging their protagonists but accepting that sometimes there is only one choice that a person can make.
Three Times (2005)
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Breaking down Moonlight into three chapters is one of the many inspired ideas that Jenkins adopts in the film – and also one that he may have borrowed from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s quietly beautiful romance. Following the same actors as different characters in the years 1915, 1966 and 2005, Three Times shows (just like Moonlight) how fate keeps us coming back to the same people time and time again. While both pictures contain some of the most romantic and erotic moments captured on film in recent years, Jenkins and Hou each demonstrate that romance is often about the things left unsaid and the subtlest of physical intimacies.
Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
Director: Barry Jenkins
For those looking to acquaint themselves with the ease with which Jenkins approaches dialogue, his first film is the natural place to start. It takes the Richard Linklater-esque approach of following a couple for a day, though rather than showing us the awkward sweet-talk of the ‘before’ as Linklater does, Jenkins shows us the day after a one-night stand. Shot on film stock almost completely drained of colour, it’s visually a very different beast to Moonlight, but it has the same charming way with words. Just as Moonlight is far-reaching in its themes, Medicine for Melancholy reaches far beyond its ‘anti-meet cute’ concept: race, isolation, monogamy and gentrification are just a few of the topics covered here.
Until the Quiet Comes (2013)
Director: Kahlil Joseph
Many of Moonlight’s influences are musical, and it shares many similarities with the work of music video artist Kahlil Joseph. Soundtracked by Flying Lotus, Joseph’s film Until the Quiet Comes is a testament to the idea that good things come in small packages: it clocks in at just under four minutes but truly highlights Joseph’s talent. Just like Burnett and Jenkins, Joseph shows a slice of black life that’s true to his experiences. Watch out for the shot of two young boys playing that’s very reminiscent of Chiron and Kevin’s first childhood encounter.
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