Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a special film. I do not base that statement on its technical proficiency or the strength of its performances, but on the way it affects people. Moonlight transports you into the world of a young Miami man named Chiron, enabling you to discover it along with him. The film omits certain details, and these are every bit as relevant and powerful as the ones it elects to show. Moonlight does not ask for your heart, but gets it anyway.
Moonlight is based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Jenkins (who wrote the screenplay) and McCraney both grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood in Miami, during the 1980s.
There are three sections of the narrative: Little, Chiron, Black. These correspond to names people call the protagonist at different times in his life. Little takes place during Chiron’s childhood, when he is regularly beaten by kids at school. He is an easy target for the bullies because of his small size and timorous demeanor.
Chiron (played as a child by Alex R. HIbbert) hardly finds life easier at home; his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a drug addict, abuses him there as well. The closest thing Chiron has to a supportive adult is Juan (Mahershala Ali), who sells drugs to Paula. He also teaches Chiron to swim. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) open their home to Chiron when he needs it. He always ends up going home sooner or later, though, which means dealing with Paula’s jealous rages.
Besides Juan, Chiron also has a friend of sorts in Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner). Kevin is handsome and far more popular, yet he seeks Chiron’s company at odd moments. This confuses Chiron, who struggles to define his own feelings in the matter. There is a painful scene where he bluntly asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?” Clearly, someone has taunted him. Juan and Teresa try to encourage Chiron. His next question is, ”Do you sell my mother drugs?”
The next section, Chiron, takes place in high school, with the final, Black, occurring several years later. Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes has the role of Black (the adult Chiron). Jharrell Jerome plays sixteen-year-old Kevin, while Andre Holland is the adult Kevin. The different Chirons and Kevins resemble each other through mannerisms and speech patterns more than outward appearance, which is often how it happens in life.
Although Moonlight is not preachy or didactic in any way, it is only too easy to understand how events in one period of Chiron’s life influence the next. Less clear is how he manages to persevere-or why. The film provides a hint near the end, but in the gentlest of terms.
This is such a well-constructed film that it is almost difficult to write about disparate elements. The acting is strong throughout, with Mr. Ali, Ms. Harris, and Mr. Holland being especially worthy of mention. James Laxton’s cinematography, Nicholas Britell’s music, and the editing by Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders are vital in maintaining the spell of this extraordinary film.
Moonlight alludes to several themes, but the one that resonates with me is that of identity. To put it in Juan’s words,
“..At some point you’ve gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Powerful words, from a beautiful and powerful film.
Theme: Who You Gonna Be
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