It’s arguable what the most important element of a movie is. The plot hooks the audience, the directing keeps the audience entertained, and the theme gives the audience something to think about once the credits start rolling. However, at the center of each of these elements are the characters. Movies that lack strong characters will often feel hollow—a movie can have the largest, most exciting set pieces, but without strong characters, the audience won’t have anything to truly connect with.
Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and written by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (based on McCraney’s unpublished play), is perhaps the purest example of a character study. The film is divided into three chapters, and each centers on Chiron, a young black man from a rough neighborhood coming to terms with his sexuality, at different stages his life (childhood, adolescence, and adulthood). In lesser hands, this structure could feel jagged and lack cohesion, but Jenkins and McCraney connect the stories through the film’s themes (which include masculinity and sexuality) and through Chiron’s relationships.
The first chapter (“Little,” Chiron’s nickname as a twelve-year-old) sets the stage for the rest of the movie: Little befriends a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in an Oscar-winning role), who becomes a surrogate father of sorts. He’s the first person to accept Little for who he is, sexuality and all, and his absence is felt throughout the rest of the movie (a testament to the strength of Ali’s acting and Jenkins and McCraney’s screenplay). In the second chapter (“Chiron”), Chiron navigates life without his father figure’s influence, and the final chapter (“Black”) shows him emulating Juan in both aesthetics and career. The other relationships are also great (his drug-addicted mother, his first teenage romance, and Juan’s supportive girlfriend each help shape Chiron and the film), but Chiron and Juan’s relationship serves as the backbone. Without it, there would be no story.
This was a personal script (both Jenkins and McCraney based the characters off real people and the story off their own experiences), and the passion they have for the story and the characters shows. That’s the reason why Moonlight won Best Picture—it’s personal, moving film that tells a universal message. For writers, this is simply a film worth aspiring to.