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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Moonlight"

by Nathaniel R

Little and Juan framed by nature

A truth: No matter how much you love a movie on first viewing, what makes it become a classic, a masterpiece even, is less predictable. That's in how it endures and oft times whether it can keep giving you new information. Aging, even for non-living things like a movie which is already "complete," before it begins that process, is tricky. But after a handful of screenings of Moonlight over the past nine months, it's quite obvious that the film (not to mention its surprise Best Picture win) will age spectacularly well. A prediction: We're just barely getting to know its marvel.

The Hit Me With Your Best Shot series initially started as an idea to honor Cinematography but film is so collaborative and complex that that's not how it turned out. It's ended up being more of a mise-en-scène appreciation ... sometimes the images that grab you are lighting based, other times it's the perfect marriage of a sound and picture, and then there are performances so indelible that they even become the primary iconic visual. Because Moonlight is rich in all of its moving parts, I opted to just look at the first act (for now). And I did something I never do: I watched it with the sound turned off... 

There's no way to control study yourself but I bet I'd have been able to feel that entire story and marvel at the triptych structure the very first time, even without the benefit of the film's rich score and evocative line readings from the actors; director Barry Jenkins' and cinematographer James Laxton's visual storytelling is as crystalline sharp as the camera's focus is shallow. Their storytelling prowess is right there in how it introduces Juan (Oscar winning Mahershala Ali) and Little (Alex R Hibbert) and their dynamic... we get so much purely from the light. Consider these three images:

image 1 - Juan checks in at workimage 2 - Little hiding out in a crack houseimage 3 - juan enters little's life like a blinding light.

1. We first spend time with Juan as he stands outside in bright Florida daylight. The film, to its great credit, really loves and understands the power of color whether natural or theatrical, natural in this case. There's so much color in every scene. Juan may be a criminal but he's an honest one standing right there in the light. This is his life. He's just out there living it.

2. The immediate contrast is "Little" (née Chiron) who we first observe hiding in a dark room from bullies. He's barely visible and silent -- so good luck getting to know him -- with the only light source being sneaky Florida sunshine working its way through boarded up windows. The room is revealed to be a crack den with this haunting shot when Little discovers a needle. 

3. Little is startled by a sound and the room is suddenly flooded with light as Juan tears down the boards and "breaks in" climbing through the window. Is there a more succinct metaphor for the main arc of the film itself? Juan, wholly part of Little's problematic world of drug abuse (his mom's an addict, and Juan her dealer), but also apart from it, a bright shot of hope and warmth and makeshift parenting. After Little meets Juan he might actually meet himself. (But first he'll have to try to being Juan) 

Two images you've seen a million times in the film's advertising stand out as easy "best shot" choices. There's that theatrically lit hallway in Little's home where his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) screams at him in slo-motion, all purple and bruised nightmare feeling. In direct contrast there's the soft palette and elemental purity of that swimming lesson as Juan cradles Little in the water, teaching him to swim. The waves continually lapping the camera like a lullaby. 

best shot in "Little" (act 1 of Moonlight)

But in the end, I must return again to the film's incredibly confident visual storytelling. One day, Little finds himself alone in his apartment. The TV is missing (presumably traded for drugs) and he prepares himself a bath. At first I smiled in recognition (I used to do exactly this as a kid, boiling extra water if the bathwater wasn't hot enough) and kneel down to stir it with my hands, but then my heart broke. We have few clues as to what Little is feeling as he sits in the bath. He's an unusually silent kid. But as he sits in the bathtub, lit neither by sunlight (Juan) or theatrical lighting (Paula) but in a nondescript articial light, he is purely alone and no doubt lonely.

As he slinks back into the water I'm sure he's thinking of the swimming lesson, of Juan's arms. He probably doesn't know it yet but he dreams of living in the light.

11 other choices from the 'Best Shot' club...
Cinema Cities gazes at Kevin and Chiron
Christian Bonamusa "the wounds that shape us"
Chris Feil Chiron in an ocean of difference
Citizen Truth goes with male connection
Dancin Dan chose his from a very long list of brilliant shots
Derreck on Kevin's gestures
Film Actually went to the beach
Jason Henson on Chiron's inarticulate desire
Par3182 has new goals
Philippe Ostiguy shares Chiron's defiance
Rachel Wagner liked Act Two best

Would you like to join us? Here's what's next
Tues May 30th Wonder Woman Season 1 Episodes 5/6 (two parter) "The Feminine Mystique"  [Amazon  (per episode or season) | iTunes (full season) ]
Tues June 6th Parent Trap (1961) starring Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills! [Amazon | iTunes | Netflix ]

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Reader Comments (15)

Interesting choices so far. Especially with the two that focused on the final shot.

Mine's missing, I sent it to your e-mail but:

May 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

I LOVE the sequence of Chiron at home alone - it makes you wonder just how many times he's done this, and reminds of one of the first things we really learn about him, when Paula tells Juan that he's usually very good at taking care of himself. That bathtub shot was in my top five.

May 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Gorgeous choices and writing. Looking forward to reading the rest and revisiting the movie.

May 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Dan -- glad i'm not the only one.

Derreck -- sorry i did see that email. not sure how i missed when typing this up. added in!

May 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

catbaskets -- thank you kindly. i've been struggling with writing lately and i think i'm working my way out of whatever was going on. :)

May 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's so interesting to see eveyrone's post. It's funny that I would never have given Chiron's abs a second thought. LOL. It definitely is a movie I get more out of each time I watch it. Beautiful.

May 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRachel W

Ugh I wanted to participate, but I'm seeing a musical in Sacramento.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

to Dancin' Dan - I also thought those were so pivotal to the film. Thanks for pointing it out.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I was slow to post mine, I apologize.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Wonderful. I love this series.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

I can't wait to read everyone's posts. I love this series and usually participate in it (last year I think I did every week!) and I love this movie. Just didn't have the time and won't have the time until mid-June.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I wanted to participate so badly (it would've been my first time), but I couldn't because I couldn't choose. The movie is gorgeous. Those vibrancy of the "beautiful nightmare" that is Miami and of some of dramatically lit interiors is just astonishing when you consider the modest means it was made with. Even more than that, I continue to be amazed with how beautifully shot the actors were. All those shades of black and brown, thoughtfully, not generically approached. I think that approach is another, of many, reasons this film is so important to Black and Brown people.

If I were going to settle on one shot though, I think I have to go with that bell at the diner. I love how it signals the start of that whole scene, and it jars you out of the swoon after the jukebox. That's the one for today, but it's sure to change again tomorrow, and the next day...

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Love everyone's choices! I feel like you really can't go wrong in choosing a best shot out of this movie.

btw, I tweeted mine out yesterday, but here's the link again:

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKeisha

Almost choked up at the end of the second paragraph. I was thinking just this morning (as is often the case, just can't stop thinking about Moonlight) that it would be as effective as a silent film. Not to diminish the beautiful dialogue in any way but as you say, such is the power of the visual storytelling and the acting. It's difficult for me to see this as just a movie, it's so raw it just feels too real.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChuck

Love this feature, love this entry esp., and love love love Moonlight. I still can't believe it won BP, b/c it's just so deserving - how often does that happen w/ BP? NOT OFTEN! I think it is a movie that will easily endure for years to come.

My fave shot is the final shot, beautifully summed up by Dancin' Dan.

May 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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