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Naomie Harris’s Voice Is a Secret Weapon in ‘Moonlight’

In Barry Jenkins’s tour de force, the role of Chiron’s crack-addicted mother demands an actor with the sympathy and depth to elevate the character beyond a trope. With an unforgettable presence, Harris delivers a bracingly human performance.

(A24/Ringer illustration)
(A24/Ringer illustration)

As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.

Time and again, director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney have been asked what inspired their Oscar-nominated collaboration, Moonlight. By now, their answer is familiar: In some ways, they explain, the movie is true to life. Both men grew up in Liberty City, Miami, the predominantly black neighborhood in which Moonlight is set. Both grew up poor, like the movie’s young black protagonist, Chiron. And both were raised by mothers addicted to crack cocaine — again, like Chiron.

Here’s the beauty — and risk — of filmmaking that verges on autobiography: Someone has to play the mother.

“I said to Barry, ‘I have fears about taking on this role,’” said Naomie Harris, the actress brave enough to take the part, in an interview with The New York Times. “He said to me, ‘I understand your fears, but the reality is I want to tell my story, and my story necessarily involves that of my mother.’” To pull off the astonishing feat of sympathy and understanding the role demands is one thing. To do so while acting in a film by men who know, intimately, the pain this kind of character can cause, is another. “When you have this amazingly well-trained thespian performing so well that she starts to look like your mom,” said Jenkins, “at that point it became this different thing. We were living out this therapy session that I did not want to have.” That insight may be why Paula is not merely a “crack-addicted mother,” as the stereotype typically goes, but a fully imagined woman who loves her son and tries to hold down a job and to raise him, even as she struggles with addiction.

The first time I saw Moonlight, the character of Paula felt like a misstep. In such a personal movie, to find what felt like an overburdened stock trope of black poverty was a disappointment. Then I saw the movie again. And I kept my eye on Harris: how she closes her eyes, warily, after a strange man brings her son home; how she barrels, spindly and unpredictably, toward Chiron when she’s locked out of the house; how her hand shakes while lighting a cigarette after years of being sober. As much as Moonlight is a movie about a time in a boy’s life, it’s also about the same time in his mother’s life. It’s advertised as a triptych tracing three distinct moments in Chiron’s journey. Telling that story means becoming a three-part series of snapshots of all the characters, including Chiron’s mother, whose life plays out as a nascent struggle with crack that becomes a full-blown addiction before finally evening out on the road to recovery. Paula is a supporting role, but a primary force, so much so that Harris is the only actor to appear in all three parts of the movie.

The movie is very much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) in that sense: shifts in the mother’s life loom so large in the story that she at times feels like a colead. Patricia Arquette won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the warm maturity she brought to the role of Mason Evans’s mother. This year, the 40-year-old Harris is nominated for the same award, alongside Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), and sure-bet front-runner Viola Davis (Fences). Harris is not expected to be the kind of surprise upset the supporting actress category is sort of known for.

But who knows. If she wins, it’ll be richly deserved, an acknowledgement of the vast imaginative and performative leaps Harris takes in order to give her troubled character a sense of inner life and individual humanity. It isn’t a needlessly noble performance: We never sense Harris patting herself on the back as she shudders and slurs her lines. Nor do any of the ticks typically brought to performances of crack addicts — even in serious films — ring with actorly falsehood. The role of a crack addict demands, practically invites, grotesque exaggeration. “They’ll be perfectly normal,” Harris explained, “and then the next they’re shouting and they’ll throw something, and suddenly become super aggressive.”

How do you do that, as an actor, and yet convey the character as human? Harris has said that she initially judged Paula — pretty harshly — while reading the script. But her performance ups the ante on what seems possible for this kind of role. In her hands, Paula is more than human: She’s alive.

Harris filmed the role in just three days, while on a quick break from a press tour for the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, in which she reprised her role of Moneypenny from the previous film, Skyfall. That’s a convenient précis of her range. Filming her scenes out of order over the course of those 72 hours in Miami, Harris had to tremble and strain under the ravages of Paula’s addiction. In the Bond films, meanwhile, she’s the sexy, whip-smart secretary that M. leans on to keep Bond on his leash. One of the standout scenes in Daniel Craig’s Bond era is a close shave, with Moneypenny scraping foam from Bond’s neck as she says, “My official directive was to help — in any way I can.”

This immediate back-and-forth between vastly different roles is required of in-demand actors all the time. But what has long intrigued me about Harris is the constant running through her varied roles, which also include a turn as Winnie Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), a hardened cop from the Bronx (Miami Vice), and the fierce survivor of a zombie apocalypse (28 Days Later). There’s a hard edge to her performances. We need to believe in Winnie’s moral reserve. We need to believe Bond is as astonished and turned on by Moneypenny as he is rightfully suspicious of her intentions. We need to believe Paula is as loving as she is unpredictable, even dangerous. Harris’s talent is for knowing when to play up that hardness — it’s what prevents her performances from slipping into the easy gestural and emotive platitudes which so often dampen the kinds of archetypes she plays.

The Rosetta Stone of her range might be as the zombie-slaying Selena in 28 Days Later. The part lets her flex. When a friend is infected with the zombie virus, she hacks him to death with a machete, instinctively and without remorse, lest he attack her. Later, though, she sensitively laments that she’ll never again get to hear an original song or read a new book for the first time, thanks to the apocalypse — and then pecks a guy on the cheek for caring. How does she not come off as a sociopath?

I believe the key is her voice. In 28 Days Later, the difference between Selena when she’s about to kill you and Selena when you’re on good terms is at least two octaves. All the hardness she brings to every role is there — or not, when she’s hiding it. Harris, who usually speaks with a delightfully British lilt, has a way of deepening her voice and making her gestures bolder to bring out the music in a written part. Her voice drops the way a diva’s does when she’s reaching far into herself for that untold note. It’s no mistake that the most important word in Moonlight — faggot — is first uttered by her. Slyly, however, knowing how Harris’s voice works, Jenkins makes us infer it. He gives it to us backward, then forward, in slow motion each time: not a full scene, just a colorfully stylized sliver of a memory Chiron has of a moment he doesn’t understand. And he strips the moment of sound: Harris is reduced to a glare and a silent growl — but you can see it, you can see her voice reaching for an old, pained anger. She and Jenkins make saying the word its own, self-contained performance. And that’s the presence it has, psychologically, for Chiron: It’s a violent jut of memory.

Harris, of course, has other sterling qualities — Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, make especially striking use of Harris’s light brown eyes in the natural Miami sunlight. But her voice somehow sums it all up for me. That’s especially true given the source material; McCraney and Jenkins are lyrical, musical writers, and Harris’s striking alto brings out the music, even as the character’s own state is dire.

In possibly my favorite scene in the movie, Harris is caught getting high by the crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, this year’s deserving front-runner for Best Supporting Actor), who’s taken a liking to Chiron and disapproves of his mother’s addiction. The irony of a crack dealer looking down on her lifestyle isn’t lost on Paula. But if the scene were merely a petty confrontation, it wouldn’t be important. Harris transforms Paula standing up for herself into an occasion to break Juan’s heart. She gives the language a beautiful sense of rhythm, speckling McCraney and Jenkins’s words with a dismissive, drawling sound: huh. It’s not a question; it’s an accusation. Jenkins writes the revelation of Juan and Paula’s mutual pain into the scene, but Harris’s gutteral insistence in calling Juan to task with that huh? makes the scene play like an interrogation. Each huh? is a Who do you think you are? By the end, we’ve been reminded, alongside Juan, of who Paula is: She’s Chiron’s mother. And Juan is no better than she is.

Paula is just as strong and overbearing in the alchemical mess of Chiron’s adolescence as his growth spurt or his burgeoning sexuality. She’s meant to come off like nature: as grandiose as a hurricane sweeping through a boy’s emotional life. But she’s wounded, too. It takes a performance like Harris’s to make us feel the pain of those wounds.