“Moonlight is an extraordinary film”
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is graceful yet unflinching in its powerful portrayal of black masculinity, sexuality, and the troubling mutual exclusivity, if any, of both defining factors in a man’s life.
Divided into three acts, each boasting their own unique narrative power, we are initially immersed into the life of a young black boy named Chiron (pronounced “shy-rone” and played by Alex Hibbert), who is nicknamed “Little” for much of his prepubescent years because of his timid size. Chiron’s life as a young child mainly consists of constant bullying and grappling with his mother’s (Naomie Harris) distant nature due to her drug habit, without understanding it entirely. He often flees to the home of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer in Miami, and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feed and give him a place of solace.
Eventually, we see Chiron as a teenager, played by Ashton Sanders, a terrific young actor who shines in such an impressionistic role. The endless bullying and torment continues through Chiron’s adolescence, as he frequently has to dodge bullies and local gangs in his neighborhood who viciously beat him every chance they get. Meanwhile, Chiron’s mother’s drug habits continue to worsen, and her crack cocaine addiction is fueled by the money Chiron is graciously given by Teresa. Chiron’s closest companion is a young man named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), with whom they share an intimate moment with on the beach, which makes for one of the most, if not the most, powerful and romantic moments of the year.
Finally, we see Chiron as an adult, played by Trevante Rhodes, going by the name “Black” as he makes a living trapping in Atlanta. He’s eventually reunited with an old friend as he tries to come to terms with who he has become.
Moonlight is an example of how visually arresting a film can be on the merits of its aesthetics, and other than Nicolas Winding Refn’s sadly overlooked Neon Demon, no other film comes close this year in visual scope. The film is often captured in varying shades of moonglow and midnight-hue, where Chiron and other black bodies are made more vibrant in the light as they often appear blue or a dark indigo. This intimate, almost blacklight-style contrast turns a human body that has often been societally characterized as unattractive or dirty into something truly beautiful. Consider moments where adult Chiron sits in a diner and the radiating moonlight through the window makes his neck and jaw appear as a stark blue in contrast to his black skin. Moments like these exist all throughout Moonlight, providing for a sense of mellowness, that even if you don’t see, you will surely feel.
It’s a mellowness that runs deep through the look and tone of Moonlight despite the recurring depressing events that occur; I’d say Chiron’s teenage years are what saddened me the most. It’s the true portrayal of hopelessness and neglect, and Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton’s soft imagery only makes vicious, fist-to-cuffs violence that much more heartwrenching and disturbing. All three actors, who are tasked with embodying such a open but specific character, work wonders: Hibbert provides us with youthful alertness, Sanders, as stated, shows us an impressionistic view of adolescence in an impacting manner, especially when it’s characterized by even the briefest moments of passion and comfort, and Rhodes’ comes off as a young Tyrese Gibson in the way he speaks softly, infrequently, but always has a sensitive look on his face no matter how rugged he comes off.
The film’s commentary on masculinity and sexual orientation always feel close by regardless of time or place in any given scene. Consider the scene where Kevin must prove how tough he is before a group of his peers by relentless punching Chiron until he can no longer stand up, this coming not long after the two men share their aforementioned moment together. No matter how powerful and intimate seduction and passion can be, it would seem that the burden of proving one’s masculinity always comes forth sooner or later. “Are you okay?” is now replaced with “are you hard?”
Moonlight is an extraordinary film; the kind that gets by on the simple, quietly effective moments, and one that sneaks up on you emotionally as it glides its way through almost two hours. It’s a powerhouse of strong performances from men and women of different generations, on top of some of the most attractive and pulsating visuals you’re likely to see this year. Finally, its tender and contemplative focus on both masculinity and sexuality show that its aesthetic prowess is not amplified for a lack of thematic depth. In many ways, I feel this is the film countless people have been waiting for, and in a rare bout of optimism about a smaller film’s performance, I have a strong feeling they’ll find it, see it, and praise it, deservedly so.