Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is such a complex and conceptual film that I hardly know how to even begin describing it. To say that this is a coming-of-age story about the life of a gay, black, working-class boy barely even scratches the surface. On a broader level the film is about what it means to be black and gay in America today and depicts such socially relevant issues as drug abuse, incarceration and schoolboy violence, but to call this movie a comment on the world we live in undermines the personal and artistic elements at work. In many ways this movie is more about the mood and tone and the individual moments that play out in the successive chapters. It is a character study, a social commentary, and an abstract exploration of art and emotion. The film is a beautiful, intimate personal tale telling the real-life story of a young man’s struggle for identity and it is also a visual poem, spoken through light, music, and expressions. It is all of those things and more and is without question one of the best films of 2016.
Told in three chapters, each entitled with his given name at the time, Moonlight tells the story of a poor, sexually conflicted African-American boy living in Florida with Paula (Naomie Harris), his drug addicted mother. First we see him as Little (Alex Hibbert), a withdrawn ten-year-old getting picked on by bullies. It is at this age that he befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), who provide him with advice and comfort to help him navigate through his turbulent life. In the second chapter he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), an introverted teenager whose abuse at the hands of the bullies has become more unbearable and violent. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a cocky womaniser, is his greatest source of comfort at this time but is also a source of emotional and sexual confusion for him. Finally, as a young adult in chapter three, we see him as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a bulked up drug dealer living in Atlanta. Having seemingly left his past behind him, a phone call from a grown-up Kevin (André Holland) brings it all flooding back.
The defining theme of Moonlight seems to me to be identity. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is trying to figure out his place in the world and is tormented by conflicting ideas of sexuality and masculinity. As a kid, before he’s even old enough to understand the concept of homosexuality, the other boys sense something ‘different’ and ‘soft’ about him and punish him for it. As a teenager, as his confused desires start to manifest themselves, the bullying intensifies. Although Chiron is able to explore his sexuality in one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he is still at a vulnerable age where he lacks the support or the confidence to accept the way he is. Thus, when he is later taught in the harshest, most brutal way that the way he feels is contrary to what a man is ‘supposed’ to be, it’s a lesson he takes to heart. The next time we see him, his fear, rage, and self-loathing, have driven him to shape himself into the supposed archetype of African-American masculinity. He is a macho, physically dominant, violent man who has suppressed the part of himself that defies what he has been taught represents manhood.
Equally painful and agonising is his complicated relationship with his abusive, drug-addicted mother. As her addiction grows and her desperation increases, so does her son’s suffering increase. The drug trade in this area is controlled by Juan and Paula is one of his best customers. So when Juan starts to look out for Chiron, inviting him over for meals, teaching him valuable skills and lessons, and just spending time with him, their bond is sullied by the awareness that Juan is partly to blame for Chiron’s wretched home life. To view Juan as simply a surrogate-father is to simplify his character. He is a well-meaning man who sees something good in Chiron and wants to help him, but he is also a questionable role model whose influence and relationship with the young boy has as much of a toxic affect on Chiron (not only as evidenced by his mother but also by Chiron’s career as an adult) as much as a comforting one. This is only one of the ways in which Jenkins is able to bring humanity to a character and challenge what could very easily have been a stereotype
The story with its characters is fascinating and compelling enough, but the poetry of it all comes from the artistry Jenkins brings. Through sensual camera movements, rich and radiant colours and a subtle yet expressive score, the film creates a breathtaking, dream-like atmosphere. The chapters thus feel less like narratives and more like evocations, justifying the time-jumping structure the film adopts. The screenplay as well is marvellous, both in what it says and leaves unsaid. This is aided by the astounding performances provided by the ensemble, from Ali’s strong charisma to Harris’ desolate naturalism to the wonderfully expressive turns by each of the actors playing Chiron. As a character Chiron is shy, quiet, and unassuming, so it is a testament to Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that we get such a comprehensive picture of his inner-turmoil. Whether it’s the knowing gaze of a child who finally understands the relationship between his mother and his father-figure, the nervous glance between two young men who feel an undeniable yet taboo attraction between them, and most of all in the final scenes, the film is filled with silences that speak volumes.
There is so much to say about Moonlight and I have no doubt it is a film that will be studied for decades to come. Moonlight is a landmark in both LGBTQ and racial cinema and yet its themes are so universal and so resonant that any attempt to categorise it would prove inadequate. The film is just too challenging and open-ended. Moonlight is simply a great film, one of the true masterpieces of the 21st century. It is a film of profound pain and sadness but also of beauty and affection. By the end, after years of pain, torment and suffering, Chiron finally attains a greater understanding of himself and of the world and may very well have found a future of hope and freedom. Moonlight is an utterly heartrending, moving film that provides a thoughtful, mesmerising window into Chiron’s very soul and consciousness. Watching his growth, progress and struggle is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking experience that only the finest, most ingenious works of art can create.