In Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has created an immensely personal and reflective piece of art that is equivalent to slitting your wrists and pouring it onto a canvas. It’s a series of moments that glide along like a poetic wave navigating oceans rarely travelled. The summation of these moments stands as a commentary on race, sexuality, class, growing up and deciding who you are in a world that wants to decide for you. Yeah, I’m about to make things real pompous in here.
On that note the movie is near impossible to describe without using cliché, existentialist phrases. However, to do it simply (or ambiguously, rather) would be to say Moonlight, inspired by the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is about a boy named Chiron from a bad side of Miami who grows up.
Chiron’s life is depicted in three chapters spanning from childhood to manhood, and we first see him as a child going by the unwanted nickname “Little” (Alex Hibbert). The first words we ever hear people say to Little are along of the lines of “get that gay boy,” as he runs for his life from some bullies. He finds his way into an abandoned apartment complex, and curls up in fear as his tormentors bang and bash at the locked door. He’s silent as a mouse, something he’s become gifted at doing living in emotional torment at the hands of his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). That is until Juan (Mahershala Ali) shows up to offer a helping hand to the small lad. Though this character is only seen in the movie’s first act his presence is felt throughout the film, and Ali does an astonishing job of leaving his mark.
Ali gives Juan a kind of swagger and series of facial tics you would expect to see from a kind of confident drug pusher, but like Chiron, Juan is not who he looks like. Underneath the gangster facade the man radiates a surprising amount of sincerity, wisdom, warmth and humor, and as the boy grows closer to Juan he sees a man he can relate to, and someone who won’t judge him but instead guide him. Juan talks to him on a real level, gives him a home away from home with the help of his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), and holds him steady while the two embrace the ocean. Meeting Juan will be the most influential moment in Chiron’s life, but is only one in a series of moments that make him the man he will choose to become.
In his adolescent years he’s trying to figure out what things are and what words mean—like “faggot”—and if any of those words apply to him. He doesn’t speak or do much, but when he does it results in huge turning points in his life. We see the first of these when Little asks Juan if he sells drugs, and if he sold them to his mom. After a heartbreaking revelation Little walks away without saying a word, which sends us into his teenage years.
Here he goes by his name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), as he tries to keep his head down and present himself as “normal”, but is still seen as an outcast. But now his emotional state is far more fragile, as is anyone’s at that age. Sexually he’s more curious and emotionally he’s more pent up. This isn’t helped by the fact the bullies have become vastly more intimidating, as troubled youths find their way into gang circles, and one in particular singles him out, mostly because of his mother’s addiction. His mom is at her worst, as she kicks him out of the house whenever she’s having “company” over, and who even takes money from him for drugs. As well he has more heartbreak on the way as the boy he loves, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), is forced to beat him up the day after the two share a profound experience on the beach. This depiction of repressed emotions boiling up will ring true for any misunderstood soul in their teenage years, and they may even want to do what Chiron himself ends up doing. He takes this confused, devastated rage out on his tormentor, bashing a chair across his back. He’s not asked why he did it. No one seeks to understand and like many misunderstood black youth he’s sent to jail without a second thought, now another statistic.
Years later we see a man who goes by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes), who has now completely taken on the form of Juan, fit with golden teeth jewelry, a crown on his car’s dashboard, and a drug business underneath him. But it’s all a show, and the proof lies in one of the movie’s crowning achievements: The consistent emotional reservation that exists in all forms of Chiron. From his childhood years up to now Chiron has been a quiet, internal being who hides himself by looking down or shirking away. On the surface he has become buff and intimidating, but when his guard is down he shows signs of the scared kid yet to become a man—that is until he reconnects with Kevin (now played by Andre Holland). The entire movie Chiron, in any incarnation, never comes out and says he’s gay, but we know it, everyone else knows it, and he suspects it. His sexuality exists as an unspoken truth, one that he never fully accepts. That is until the movie’s final moment with Kevin allows him to bring it to light with blunt honestly and a lifetime of repressed longing.
I will refrain from describing the movie’s most powerful moments in more detail (such as the incredibly cathartic and emotional satisfying ending) because to do so would give away, well, practically everything. Director Barry Jenkins took such care in crafting every moment so they must be witnessed naturally. The camera lingers steadily on characters allowing you to discover every physical tic and absorb every feeling. Sometimes Jenkins circles around characters for a more visceral effect when a scene needs a bit of style, but mostly we get close-ups during many intimate conversations. The movie isn’t so much about things happening as it is about letting life unfold, and in Jenkins hands it does just that with stunning grace.
Much like the character of Little/Chiron/Black there is much more to this film than can be experienced in two hours. The performances from all the actors, especially Harris and Ali, are the stuff awards were meant for, and the story about the nature of growing up black and gay has never been told with such brutal and searing honesty. Years of study will be applied to analyzing this film, and many will find their lives set on a new course after watching it. At it’s core we have a movie about choosing who we want the world to see us as, but often the presentation being a masquerade for what’s really inside. When it comes to Moonlight either you love all of it for everything it is or you don’t. There is no plus-minus system that can be legitimately applied. You move with the current of the ocean, or you drown. Pomposity ended.