Barry Jenkins's second feature film, Moonlight, was certainly the best film of 2016. And it arrived at the right moment. Just as the white nationalist Donald Trump was elected, many theaters around the United States screened a film about a young and gay black American dealing with poverty, crackheads, and bullies. The story is very simple, but it manages to be profoundly poetic. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants to send Trump's America (and indeed Trump's World) a strong message about what it means to be a flesh-and-blood American, then it should nominate Moonlight in all of these categories. Black filmmakers are rarely represented at the Oscars. This shouldn't be that hard.
Best Director: Barry Jenkins
After watching Barry Jenkins's first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2008, I wrote that he might be the most important black American filmmaker after Charles Burnett, the greatest director in the history of black American cinema. It was clear to me that, like Burnett, Jenkins is a filmmaker with a literary soul. It's not that he displayed in Melancholy a gift with words, but that he could build with images a story that had the force and power of a literary masterpiece. With Moonlight, Jenkins has become the leading indie black director in the US. On a small budget ($5 million), he was able to fuse four great performances and the music of Nicholas Britell and the cinematography of James Laxton into a warm and almost pure beam of feeling. For this achievement, he deserves to be nominated for best director.
Best Picture: Moonlight
You just won't find a more important film in what many will certainly count as one of the worst years in their lives. The year 2016 saw the death of three rock icons and the election of a bigot at the hands of millions upon millions of other bigots. Had it not been for Moonlight, for its silent power, for its restrained beauty, for its profound statement about black American culture and masculinity, this year would deserve to be erased from our cultural memory.
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Ashton Sanders
Though three actors play Chiron at different periods of his life—Chiron as a boy called "Little" (Alex Hibbert), Chiron as a teen just called "Chiron" (Ashton Sanders), and Chiron as a young and thuggy man called "Black" (Trevante Rhodes)—the film's most impressive performance is by Ashton Sanders. His Chiron is the star of the film. Sanders deserves to be nominated for so perfectly capturing and effectively communicating the aches and vulnerability of a young black gay teen. Indeed, we have not seen this kind of teen intensity on the screen since the moment Jean-Pierre Léaud ran to the edge of the sea and, when all hope was lost, was frozen in time at the end of François Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece 400 Blows.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali
As Little, Chiron is befriended by a local, muscular crack dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who has a nice house and girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Though Teresa becomes Chiron's surrogate mother (his real mother is a crackhead), Juan, who was born in Cuba, arguably becomes his first crush. Mahershala Ali is a great actor (and one of the best things in the first season of the TV show Luke Cage, as well as an important character in the US version of House of Cards) who manages to be close but not erotically close, and neither really a father nor a boy. He keeps open just enough space in the relationship for the young man's desires to cross without fear of rejection.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Trevante Rhodes
As an adult, a muscle-thick Atlanta drug dealer and thug, Chiron goes by the nickname Black. The reason why Trevante Rhodes deserves to be nominated for playing the character at this stage of his life is this: It's not easy to convincingly portray a muscle-thick black thug who is secretly gay and longs for emotional and sexual connection with another man. Trevante Rhodes does this flawlessly. As he roams the hyper-macho streets, we never for a moment doubt that at the core of his hyper-macho body is a frail gay boy who is emulating his first love, Juan.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Janelle Monáe
Granted, Teresa, Chiron's surrogate mother, is not as complex and original as the other supporting roles (Juan and Black), but what matters most is not the character but its actor, Janelle Monáe. She is one of the most progressive soul singers of our day and, as Moonlight makes clear, can hold her own on-screen. Wow.
Best Cinematography: James Laxton
When we first see Juan, he exits his souped-up car to check on one of his young dealers. As Juan crosses the street, the camera swirls around him, his muscular body, his lion-proud head, his confident gait. From that moment on, we know we are in very good hands. The person handling the camera is James Laxton, and what makes his work on Moonlight nomination-worthy is that it provides the film with a perfectly balanced scale between the larger world and the individual, as well as the right amount of beauty. Though we have some sense of the city, Miami, around Little and Chiron, we also feel his intense loneliness, his painful lack of friends and men to connect with. As for the beauty, it is restrained rather than full-blown like the Jean Genet section in Todd Haynes's 1991 film Poison.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins
What the best screenplays have in common is that they make the most of a few words. Wordy screenplays are only good for comedies, and there are no jokes in Moonlight.
It is a drama from beginning to end. Based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a Miami-based playwright, Barry Jenkins's script for Moonlight, like Damien Chazelle's script for Whiplash (which was nominated for best adapted screenplay in 2015) is economical at the level of the plot but compelling at the level of the character. It tells a straight story in a completely original way.
Best Music (Original Score): Nicholas Britell
The reason Nicholas Britell deserves to be nominated for best music score is because the three themes he composed for the three stages in Chiron's life do not so much expose or provide direct access to the core of Chiron's emotions as give us a sense of his quiet struggle through life. "Little's Theme" is performed with the higher keys on a piano and recalls some of the pieces in Debussy's "Children's Corner." "Chiron's Theme" has deeper piano keys that are accompanied by a throaty flute. This is the music of a young man whose voice has only recently cracked and whose sexual feelings are becoming stronger and more apparent. "Black's Theme" is performed with strings that capture the gravity of being a muscular but melancholy drug dealer. Altogether, they form the fugue of this year's most fascinating movie character.