The Atlantic looks back at key cinematic moments in 2016, this time Barry Jenkins’s film about a young man’s life in three acts.
Over the next two weeks, The Atlantic will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment. Today: Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)
In 2013, talking to me about her Tony-winning production of Metamorphoses, the director Mary Zimmerman explained why water played such a pivotal role in the staging of the show. “Water has everything to do with change—in virtually every culture it’s a symbol of change,” she said. “In Shakespeare … water is symbolic in terms of crossing a rubicon, and of transformation. In a lot of cultures it’s where you go to meet the gods, because they come out of water.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about this after watching Moonlight, a film in which water is a recurring and potent symbol of rebirth, transformation, and release. Directed by Barry Jenkins, who also adapted it from a work by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, the movie is the most acclaimed release of the year, theatrical in its structure but impossibly cinematic, turning Miami into a muted but luminous landscape. Water engulfs the characters and the viewers in the film’s most powerful scene, in which Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex Hibbert) to swim. Water precipitates teenage Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) sea change before he viciously beats his bully. And it surrounds his growing closeness with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), in the form of the ocean.