Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland, Trevante Rhodes
October 21, 2016
Moonlight is a film in three acts, three chapters of the unfinished, on-going story of the life of Chiron, a gay black man from Miami. But maybe that’s a reductive way of describing him — already from that description, there are expectations as to what this story will be, how it will unfold, what troubles exist within. Regardless, the audience grows with him, from his childhood, his time in high school, his life as a man, but we only see pieces. Significant pieces, of course. The type of memories that haunt and the type that might return to you when you’re in need of comfort, in need of the knowledge that others out there might feel like you, might understand you despite a deep loneliness in your life. Significant pieces that inform your self-worth.
We meet Chiron as Little (Alex Hibbert), a child left generally to his own devices. He’s not “hard,” like his friend Kevin tells him to be. He’s small, and quiet, an observer looking for his own peace. He’s found hiding from bullies by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes it upon himself to help Little out and provide him a safe haven within the house he shares with his partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
Juan has a physical presence that’s undeniably “hard,” and his job requires he be intimidating and possess at least the promise of violence. But Moonlight is uninterested in making him simply a thug, even one with a heart of gold. Juan’s greatest trait is a compassion that is more than just platitudes or encouragement. He tries to impart wisdom, to be, specifically, a black male mentor to a black boy that is clearly adrift. Little is quiet, mostly, absorbing and watching and learning who in his life he can trust, if he can be understood at all.
Juan and Teresa offer sanctuary, both emotional and physical, to Little and then to Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his high school incarnation. Naomie Harris plays Paula, his mother, who provides neither safety nor the unconditional acceptance Chiron craves — and he knows it, is painfully aware she does not know how to love him. Paula struggles with being a mother, an addict, but Moonlight complicates our vision of both Paula and Juan by showing us where they intersect: drugs. He provides, she uses, and they both must live with what that means for Chiron. While Juan is more sympathetic, shown as kind and accepting of homosexuality as contrasted to Paula’s homophobia and fear for her child, he isn’t let off the hook for his criminality. It’s complicated, but it’s simultaneously just another job, a viable way to a better life. It isn’t glamorous but it provides.
There’s a whole swath of changes for Chiron that we miss, between parts two and three, that lead to him growing up into a drug dealer himself and claiming the name Black (Trevante Rhodes). Black is imposing, successful, and unlearned in the ways of making human connections. Paula has cleaned up, having taken the initiative to pull Chiron out of Miami as an effort to save both of them, and while Black is clearly no longer the same target for bullying and abuse his younger self was, he still holds onto fears we’ve watched him grapple with as a child. He embodies the superficial trappings of successful masculinity — sculpted muscles, gold grill, nice car, new phone, his very own employees — but there’s an empty space in his life that has followed him for years.
His gains only match Juan’s to a point — Juan’s partnership with Teresa was another insight into his emotional vulnerability and how mutual respect is possible. They understood each other, moving in tandem in their attempts to coax Little into talking to and trusting them. Chiron’s fleeting human connections betray him — his best friend Kevin, his mother — or leave him, as Juan eventually passes away — so he hasn’t attempted to create any new ones. Black tries to joke with a subordinate but terrifies him instead; he’s awkward and unfamiliar with friendship. It’s not Black who reaches out in the end, but Kevin, who represents simultaneously what could have been and the harsh reality of what was.Moonlight’s story contemplates and complicates the idea of black masculinity in a way that allows for it to take many forms, even if all those forms aren’t shown to us on screen. Chiron’s homosexuality is only a part of what isolates him, but it’s what marks him explicitly as outside the bounds of what’s acceptable. He’s soft because he allows Teresa to mother him, because he doesn’t want to engage with his “harder” classmates. It’s important to note that Chiron lives in a black community, interacts primarily (maybe entirely) with other black characters — Chiron’s race is complicated in contrast to expectations of other black people, while the racial dynamics of the wider world are implicit (that is to say, racism is never forgotten but never explicit: background radiation). His idea of what a black man “should be” has many roots, and that includes how he is policed by his peers. He thinks hardening himself is the only way to survive, that if he can’t imitate the sexually-charged machismo of people like Kevin to gain acceptance, he can at least become armored and terrifying to those that might hurt him.
The cinematography of Moonlight helps us navigate the emotional tumult of Chiron, who is taciturn in all three parts. He has no skill for the art of conversation, is awkward with his body even when it is picture perfect. Moonlight’s intimate camera shots bring us tight and close to Chiron, but keep us at a distance as well. You see the camera swing awkwardly when a character enters a car, avoiding the door. You see the haze of an unfocused lens during memories that weren’t crystal clear even when formed. You see the space between Chiron and the people around him, that they create, that he creates.
Cinematographer James Laxton, a regular partner of Kevin Smith, has worked with Barry Jenkins before in Medicine for Melancholy, a 2008 black mumblecore film. His work here is even dreamier, and he and Jenkins work to form a singular visual experience, a definitive point of view that works to fill in Chiron’s silence. So much is packed into the pauses, long gazes, hunched shoulders that the camera lingers on.
Laxton’s work benefits immensely from the careful and imaginative design of Hannah Beachler, whose production design work include Fruitvale Station and Beyonce’s Lemonade. She incorporates the teals and pinks of coastal Miami, the hazy heat of the summer, and blends these softer touches into Liberty City, a place full of grit and abandoned drug holes. Each house and home is a clear vision — Chiron’s claustrophobic house with Paula contrasts with Juan and Teresa’s neat house with plush seating and bay windows contrasts with his impersonal apartment.
The screenplay is written by Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and its theatrical roots come through in the film’s pacing, the particularity of scenes, the three act structure, and its reliance on an audience that is willing to accept ambiguity. There’s a lot of story being implicitly told to us, and that’s ambitious in a story with such a particular point of view. The lushness of the visuals fill up the story, however, in a distinctly cinematic way — we don’t have to fill the stage with imagination.
Spreading the workload between three actors to capture one point of view character is tough, but the three actors are excellent in the ways they are similar and the ways they are different. Chiron, the middle one, has lost some of that childish defiance that Little had, while Black’s physical discomfort with himself is a carryover from his high school years — he’s beautiful but still cannot shed the idea that he is something ugly or abnormal. Instead of reveling in his toughness, Rhodes plays Black as someone who feels there’s no alternative narrative for himself. This is the best he can do, assuming the mantle of his closest mentor because that’s where he last found acceptance. Jidenna’s song “Classic Man” (a chopped & screwed version) plays several times — Chiron uses the name Black to recreate himself into what he thinks he should be.
André Holland plays adult Kevin as someone who has finally found a way to claim his own life — though they grew up in the same city, the same environment, Kevin’s relationships create strength for him to accept himself and to move on from past grievances. His smile is comfortable, inviting to us and to Black, rather than the uncertain smiles of Chiron that he hides behind a gold front as an adult. Their reunion isn’t packaged as a sweeping romantic moment, with stirring orchestral cues. They are not traditional star-crossed lovers. But it’s warm. It’s comforting.
Moonlight is a tough and beautiful film, innovative in small ways, I think, that make up something that left me wanting — I don’t mean unsatisfied in the film, but rather that yearning for a cool breeze on a hot summer day. The relief of understanding, the release of a long-held breath.