Moonlight is about being gay, black, dealing with drug addiction, school violence and incarceration. It may seem like the film is doing too much, but what director Barry Jenkins offers us is a hard look at the reality of a young man’s life.
The film is mostly set in a drug scene surrounding Miami over the course of several years. We open the film on Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a small, silent boy, before he grows into a brooding teenager (Aston Sanders), and finally a heavily built adult (Trevante Roudes) and explores what it means to be masculine. We see Chiron painfully experiencing the homophobic attitudes of his peers while struggling to understand his own desires. The character’s attempts to find meaning in struggle are relatable to all. It is what makes this a very humane film.
Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCarney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, the protagonist’s life is split into three acts, titled by names the protagonist’s adopts or was given: “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”. The story is linear and brings nothing new to your typical rough-childhood back story. I suppose one cannot avoid tropes when dealing with Oscar bait topics. Large amounts of the character’s life are developed off-screen, in between chapters. It can be disorientating but these are only minute details when analysing this film. They serve only as the backdrop. The breathtaking performances and design are the real heroes here.
Do not be disheartened by the child actors. All three share a similar quality in their acting that gives the character of Chiron a high level of realism. The character is the silent type, which means the actors have a challenge when expressing themselves through motion and facial expressions. Under the director’s hands, we see the world through his eyes with blinding clarity by focusing on what little dialogue Chiron has and paints trance-like close-ups of his face.
Their performances are strongly supported by Mahershala Ali’s character, Juan, as a drug dealer and father figure to Chiron. He gives a performance, worthy of his Oscar win, bringing a new glow to an overused character type. He is matched by Naomi Harris’ portrayal of Chiron’s drug dependant mother. She emphasizes a grotesque relationship between a mother and son with a gritty performance. However, points will have to go to Ali, for bringing something different to the table.
Moonlight is written like a visual poem with rich colours and hues associated with the title name. Jenkins wanted to create a dreamlike experience and move away from the realistic, documentary like look that is typical with street movies like this. It was only after my second time watching the film that I realised that although guns were present on screen, they were never used. Jenkins disregards violence that we may expect in hustler movies.
In the first act we see Chiron as a child, running away from kids wanting to beat him up and being rescued by Juan, sporting a bandana, golden necklace and earring. He later brings back Chiron to his mother, Paula (Naomi Harris). We first see her in a nurse’s uniform protectively wrapping her arms around Chiron after being gone all night. It is in here that Jenkins attempts to put to rest our judgment of people based on physical attributes with an ensemble of dual-faced characters. Juan exhibits more saint like virtues. The scene where he teaches Chiron to swim looks more like a baptism and he dissuades him from accepting his lot in life, whether it is his tormentors or his drug dependant, abusive mother.
The film, most of all, is about expectations. “Who is you?” We hear this question thrown at our protagonist throughout the film. An answer only comes in the final act, from an adult Chiron. “I’m me man. Ain’t trying to be nothing else.” Perhaps, like any good piece of work, the answer only comes at the very end, in a thrilling and painful process that I can only feel privileged to have watched.