In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Brian Tallerico makes the case for the Best Director of 2016: Barry Jenkins for "Moonlight."
It’s not only that Barry Jenkins directed the best film of 2016. The winner for Best Director and Best Picture don’t necessarily need to match up. It’s not only that his competition in this category could have been stronger (no Martin Scorsese? Really?) It’s not only the important message it would send in 2017 to award a black man an Oscar for Best Director for the first time in film history. Sure, all of these factors played a role in our decision to assert that Jenkins should win on Sunday, but it is primarily because of the work right up there on the screen—the fluid storytelling, the blend of the lyrical & the realistic, the ability to make the specific feel universal, the pitch-perfect work with ensemble, the use of music, the tactile sense of setting. It’s not just one of the best-directed films of 2016 but of the decade.
Consider if you will all the places that “Moonlight” could have gone wrong. First and foremost, it is a film divided into three chapters, in which a different performer plays the same character, and yet it never feels episodic. We believe that Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes) are the same person, and we do so because of Jenkins’ direction—his visual choices that tie the chapters together and the way he directs his performers to echo each other without mimicking. He connects the chapters with a visual and emotional language in a way that allows us to never doubt or question that these three performers are playing the same person. The movie falls apart without that skill.
“Moonlight” strikes that amazing balance between personal memory and traditional storytelling. Jenkins allows us to never get pushed away by the specificity of it all, knowing that the film is stronger if it brings us into Terrell McCraney’s personal story instead of trying to make it “something for everyone.” This is Chiron’s story. That you can see yourself in it or feel its emotions is because of the truth of it and Jenkins' ability to turn truth into poetry.