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Film review: ‘Moonlight’ is a quiet knockout

Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-nominated feature is a triptych of a gay black boy’s emotional journey.

In Barry Jenkins’s debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), a man and woman who have had a one-night stand spend the next day assessing each other over food, art gallery visits, and debates on race, gentrification and fidelity. Jenkins strips the frames of nearly all colour but keeps the camera close to the temporary lovers, travelling all over their faces and bodies as they merge their individual selves for a few moments of shared passion.

Jenkins’s second feature Moonlight is just as intimate, but far more carefully constructed. The near monochrome of Medicine for Melancholy has been replaced by the blazing hot pastels of Florida and expressionist blacks and blues. The handheld camerawork that previously signalled tentativeness makes way for an equal part fluid and static style that includes sweeping shots and bold close-ups. Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot the first film) swirls his camera round in smooth waves, but he often halts to regard the vivid faces of the cast and register their thoughts. Cinema is overflowing with coming-of-age narratives, but in Moonlight, the journey of a gay black man, which unfolds across three chapters, has freshness, imagination and control that are the marks of true accomplishment.

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Moonlight.

The triptych signals its boldness in the opening sequence, in which a whirling take introduces small-time crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Little (Alex Hibbert). Juan is taken by the grave-looking child, who is struggling with burdens too heavy for his scrawny shoulders. Little’s single shambolic mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug user, and the boy regularly gravitates towards Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janella Monae) for meals and a clean bed. Juan’s love for the boy, beautifully explored in the sequence in which a swimming lesson resembles a baptism, emboldens Little to ask him the meaning of the word “faggot”.

Little has fallen in love with his classmate Kevin, and after an encounter on a moonlit night on a beach, the shy and mumbling teenager tentatively approaches manhood. As Little grows up into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), he takes Juan’s place on the street corner. Chiron’s body has filled out and he has the outward manner of a neighbourhood tough, but the gold grills on his healthy teeth indicate that the boy on the beach is still hiding his true self. The opportunity to liberate the tied tongue comes when Kevin (Andre Holland) invites Chiron for dinner – and a possible date.

Jenkins pays tribute in several scenes to a stated inspiration – the films of Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai. A sequence in which Chiron drives in a car to meet Kevin, which has Caetano Veloso’s version of the Spanish song Cucurrucucu Paloma in the background, is a faithful reconstruction of Wong’s gay-themed Happy Together (1997). Frames and moments from Wong’s other films show up in other places too. What Jenkins is unable to do, and it is not for want of trying, is recreate the suppressed crackle of the encounters between the leads of Wong’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000). Chiron’s date with Kevin has its share of leading conversations and meaningful close-ups, but in this segment, Jenkins’s hold over his material is less supple than in the previous chapters.

Nestled within the grand themes of homophobia in the black community, alternate sexuality, and limited employment opportunities for black men in America is a deeply subjective, intensely felt and at time oneiric exploration of the state of Chiron’s heart. Chiron’s experiences, especially with Kevin, have the quality of a dream in a waking state. Chiron’s personal struggle carries through the remarkably unified performances of the three actors who play the character over the years. The actors share more than body language – the forward-shoulder walk and the hard stare – they vividly depict the boy-to-adult journey into the inner self.

Two other performances add their heft to the saga of self-discovery. Mahershala Ali is marvellous as Juan, the father whom Little never knew, and Naomie Harris is equally stunning as the tragic Paula, whose inability to comprehend her son’s complex feelings results in memorable moments of self-harm.

Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'.
Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'.
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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

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The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.