Naomie Harris Is the True Anchor of the Beautifully Human ‘Moonlight’: Awards Spotlight

The universal themes of a new American classic, as told from the perspective of the actress who brought Chiron's mother to life.

Naomie Harris

Daniel Bergeron

One of the most bracing moments in “Moonlight” is one you can’t hear. Paula, Chiron’s mother, stares down an impossibly long corridor and, as if shouting through all the young man’s future memories, screams at the top of her lungs. But in Chiron’s recollections, those shouts are silent.

READ MORE: IndieWire Awards Spotlight: Welcome to Our 2016-2017 Series

Barry Jenkins returns to that image repeatedly in “Moonlight,” and it’s a testament to the physicality of Harris’ performance and the raw emotion she brings to Paula’s journey. In a cast filled with talented young men, against the backdrop of one man’s journey into adulthood, Harris is the film’s unlikely steadying hand, the only performer who’s present for all three of the film’s acts.

Paula’s journey is not one filled with joy. But taking on the role was a challenge that Harris embraced:

Though the characters of “Moonlight” are often forced to relinquish or bury core parts of their identities, Harris focuses on the simple beauty of the story. None of these characters reach (or strive for) a storybook conclusion, but there’s still hope in the tiny moments of reconciliation and understanding that they discover along the way:

“Moonlight” is one of the most honest on-screen stories in recent memory. Chiron’s journey is such a specific one, but because these characters are so carefully drawn, that search for love and acceptance takes on a universal quality.

Harris doesn’t let Paula be defined purely by what she can’t give her son. In Paula’s closing moments, Harris conveys the crushing heartbreak of missed opportunities, but you can see the faint glimmer of hope that she has that his future might bend away from the life she’s lead.

That tension powers a performance that, in turn, helps make “Moonlight” a film worth remembering long after this awards season comes to a close.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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