By David Poland email@example.com
20 Weeks To Oscar: The Simple Case For Moonlight
(This is the second of an unplanned series of three pieces. I wrote the first, about La La Land, because there is an odd backlash within the media about the likely Oscar success of the film. There is no one arguing against Moonlight being celebrated. As with the La La Land column, this will not be about how much I like the film.)
Moonlight is a miracle, both in the way that all movies are a miracle – a meeting of like minds, efforts, money, and execution – and in that it is a tiny, fragile piece, given wing by not only the talent behind the filmmaking, but by entitles that tend to engage at a larger scale and have come together to support this unique work.
Tarell Alvin McCraney has a remarkable career. He was raised in Miami, one of four kids born to a teen mother who was an addict and who would die of AIDS. He found his way to great success, including more than a dozen plays, a MacArthur Grant, time at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and work at Yale, where he was recently made the chair of playwriting.
Moonlight is built from a play McCraney wrote in school, which wasn’t produced. Barry Jenkins was five years removed from his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, when he ended up in Europe writing a screenplay from the McCraney play. Jenkins went to Telluride, as he did for years, and introduced 12 Years A Slave at the festival, reigniting a long, quiet conversation with Plan B, the Brad Pitt-Dede Garner-Jeremy Kleiner production company, which would get a Best Picture win with 12 Years and would also get Best Picture nominations for Selma and The Big Short.
Three years later, Jenkins’ Moonlight would premiere at the festival where it was born.
Of course, Moonlight didn’t quite look like other Plan B Oscar movies. The budget was $1.5 million. (The budget for the other Plan B Oscar nominees ranged from $18m to $28m) The distributor was the small but mighty A24, not a major studio or Dependent like the others.
12 Years A Slave didn’t have “major movie stars,” but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and others were familiar faces to moviegoers. Selma had up-and-coming talent, but it also had Martin Luther King, Jr. and a major event in American history standing in as “the star.” And The Big Short was loaded with movie stars.
Moonlight relies on great, somewhat familiar actors, none of whom has played that much in the awards season. (Naomie Harris should have been nominated for her turn in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, but wasn’t.) Naomie Harris was the big name, having been in Bond movies and a couple Pirates of the Caribbeans. Mahershala Ali has fans from “House of Cards.” Janelle Monae was making one of her first films. André Holland is great on “The Knick” and onstage (including McCraney plays). But these are not stars you could throw on a poster and drive ticket sales. (That’s now changing.)
The phenomenon of Moonlight was on full display at Telluride. Audiences were not only screaming and standing on their feet when the movie ended, but many walked the intimate streets of Telluride in a kind of shock, rocked to their core. Men and women. Straight and gay. Some were black… but it is Telluride and well… most were not.
Somehow, in telling a story that was precisely personal to McCraney and personal to Jenkins in some very specific ways but not in others (Barry is straight), Jenkins and his team had created a universal story. A story of an impoverished neighborhood that reached right into a festival attended by the mostly wealthy. A story of drug culture that was not judged in a negative way by people who are much more likely to have their drug of choice delivered by Uber. A story of the fear and pain of growing into maturity as a gay man in a world and at a time when people would rather beat him down than accept him, embraced by a festival of people who… well, identify a lot more than anyone might have imagined with the universal pain of becoming, not matter how much their personal becomings were not specifically reflected by this film.
That is the magic of Moonlight. It is the smallest of films in the way that Hollywood tends to measure size. It is very, very specific. But it explodes on the screen in the way that great movies do, through your soul.
In terms of a wider audience, Moonlight grossed more than its budget in 12 days on just 36 screens. In the 12 weeks between opening and last week’s Best Picture nominations, in which the film has played on a maximum of 650 screens, it grossed $15.9 million. Last weekend, the film expanded to 1104 screens and has picked up another $2 million in the week.
By the time of its nomination, it had already outgrossed the total domestic grosses of recent indie Best Picture nominees like The Tree of Life, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Whiplash, and A24’s 2016 hit, Room.
These numbers are excellent. And there is a lot of room for growth. Not everyone who sees Moonlight has a life-shaking experience. But many do and no one seems to walk away without deeply appreciating the artistry involved. The word-of-mouth is deeply passionate.
There is an argument out in the world these days that Moonlight is “more important” than other movies because of the color and status of its characters. I would argue that what is important about this film is that it rises above the very specific universe it inhabits and takes us past the color, the mean streets, the drugs, the addiction, the homophobia, and brings us to ourselves.