You have no idea how excited I am to write about these three movies. Keep in mind that in watching these movies, I saw more notable characters of color and female characters than all of the movies I watched last year. Amazingly, these three movies all dealt with different aspects of blackness in different eras of American life. I partially wished I watched these films in reverse order because it tells its own sort of story. Fences, the Denzel Washington-led adaptation of the August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, tells the story of a Black family in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. Loving is a historical biopic that recounts the relationship of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which allowed for the national recognition of interracial marriage. Moonlight is a modern tale of a boy in Miami growing up around drugs and struggling with sexual identity in an environment of toxic masculinity. The similarities within these three different films set in three different time periods really highlight the unifying ties of the Black experience. Though I’ve tasked myself with evaluating all of these films on their different merits, I cannot deny that these three films were the ones I was most anxious to watch.
Potential nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
Not only is Moonlight a terribly powerful film, it’s success and word-of-mouth buzz is the embodiment of the spirit of the Academy Awards. Without all of the Oscar buzz, I doubt I would have been seeing this small film – which did not cast a single white actor – in a packed Friday night theater. Moonlight was filmed on a budget of under $5 million and is currently in theaters nationwide and has made about $12 million so far. The story is told in three parts and is centered on a dark-skinned black boy named Chiron through three formative stages of his life. It opens with his being chased by bullies and taken in by Juan who takes a liking to the shy, young, quiet boy and brings him home to his girlfriend Theresa. We see Chiron’s chaotic home life, with a drug addicted mother and not quite fitting in with kids his age. We also find out that Juan, though a kind and caring father figure to Chiron, is a drug dealer who, it turns out, deals to Chiron’s mother. In the second part, Chiron is now in high school, Juan has been killed and Chiron’s mother Paula has sunk further into her addiction. Chiron who had questions about his sexuality as a younger boy is even more isolated and ostracized by his peers. He has a sexual encounter with his childhood friend, Kevin, followed closely by a fateful encounter with a bully that changes his life. In part three, Chiron is now in Atlanta and selling drugs while his mother is repentant in recovery. After receiving a random call from Kevin, he takes an impromptu trip back to Miami to reconnect with the one person he never got over.
Moonlight is based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and was adapted and directed by Barry Jenkins. This film has a quiet yet powerful energy and tells a story that is at once unique and universal. A clear indication of the thoughtfulness of the film is shown through the thoughtfulness of the interviews with the people involved in the film. Moonlight was an absolute pleasure to watch and if you enjoy true independent small budget films that tell personal stories and feature strong and complex Black characters, you will very much enjoy Moonlight.
Potential nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design
Loving tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving’s marriage and life together before and during their 1960’s lawsuit against the state of Virginia to recognize their union. While this landmark court case and victory for civil rights is still celebrated each year, this movie attempts to spend more time getting to know the couple and the impact it had on their family. The film was full of lovely shots of the Virginia landscape that romanticized country living and tried to explain the couple’s desire to remain in Virginia near their family. As a full-fledged city girl, I could almost see the appeal. Unfortunately, I felt Loving was too focused on Richard and not enough on Mildred, who was played by the brilliant Ruth Negga. While Richard as the white husband undoubtedly faced danger and the fear of being unable to protect his wife and family, there was no attention paid to the unique challenges that Mildred faced. How did strangers react to her while out in public with her mixed raced children? Though she was the catalyst for the lawsuit and took on the national spotlight with grace, the film only showed how that backlash affected the shy and quiet Richard and not the negative consequences faced by Mildred.
I did enjoy seeing comedian Nick Kroll in a serious and quiet film, even though his character was, if not comedic, definitely goofy. Similar to Moonlight, the film was quiet, replacing long monologues with lingering looks and expressions filled with meaning. If you enjoy historical biopics and movies set in the Civil Rights era about overcoming overt racism you will like this film. Not as ambitious as Selma or as overt as Malcolm X, Loving sits in the middle of the spectrum of this genre of movies and though the performances are great I wasn’t as moved as I hoped to be from the start.
Potential nominations: Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director
I was fortunate enough to see the Broadway revival of Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in 2010 and was excited to hear that they would be in the film adaptation and that Denzel would be directing. Fences is the story of the Maxon family led by Troy (Denzel Washington), and his relationships with his wife Rose, his best friend Bono, his older brother Gabe who sustained a head injury in World War II, and his sons Lyon and Cory. The fence is the large theme and metaphor that spans the film from happy and loveable moments to moments of tense arguments and betrayals.
As Fences is an adaptation of a stage play, the acting is bigger and the dialogue is full of flourishing and poetic language which works so well on stage but is a bit jarring on screen. I was utterly immersed in the film and every actor was bringing their A game. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that August Wilson adapted his own work into the screenplay before his death in 2005, and it shows. The film is imbued with a lyricism that is uncommon for a movie, even Oscar fodder that we are used to seeing around this time. In case you have been living under a rock for the past 30 years you should already realize that Denzel Washington is one hell of an actor and his performance, like the character he played, was an inescapable presence onscreen. However, Washington is also a giving performer who surrounded himself with the best. I would recommend this film to literally everyone and if you enjoy good stories you should watch this movie.
I was so impressed by these films and it has only made me more excited to continue my Oscar watch. As it stands now, Moonlight is favored to take home Best Picture though Manchester By the Sea is also experiencing huge buzz. If it’s even half as good as Moonlight or Fences I will be quite satisfied. The telling of these specific stories through the medium of film is important because it allows us a personal and intimate portrait of lives that may seem so far removed from our own yet still hold elements of relatability for all people. This is why I love film and I love Oscar season, for the wide range of stories being highlighted that would otherwise be overshadowed by the big budget action films of the summer (which are great) and the depth of emotion these stories can pull out of me.