Before Moonlight made waves across the fall festival circuit and in theatrical release, Tarrel Alvin McCraney wrote the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” on which Barry Jenkins’ groundbreaking film is based, but surprisingly, the play was never produced for the stage. Even McCraney has admitted the work may not fit best in the theater, often remarking that the play came to him mostly visually. While we do see in Moonlight the structural influences of McCraney’s play—such as scenes in diners, kitchens, homes, and classrooms—this is a film written by the crashing of waves on a sandy beach, the look on a young boy’s face when a father figure has let him down, and the embrace of two men after years apart. It is a piece of art that has the good fortune of arriving at a moment when it is sorely needed. But Moonlight will endure because—beyond its social import and resonance—its primary aim is an unflinching look at the human condition, a truth that is evoked in a way only cinema can produce.
From the very first frame, we are immersed in a world with focus and detail, both in place and in people. We meet Juan (the phenomenal Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, checking up on one of his men working the streets in a Liberty City neighborhood. The camera circles them in a fluid shot, capturing the sun bouncing off their glistening faces and even reacting to the sound of police sirens in the distance. And in an instant, a swath of children darts through the frame. They are in pursuit of one boy in particular, whose name, we learn, is Chiron (Alex Hibbert), but the other boys call him “Little,” a nickname that also marks the first chapter in what becomes a three-part journey of growth and self discovery. Chiron finds refuge in an abandoned apartment, unaware that it is one of Juan’s drug holes, so when Juan comes to help Chiron, the young boy is understandably mute and cautious. It was not until I saw the film a second time that I understood the weight of what Juan says to convince Chiron to leave the apartment: “It can’t be no worse out there.”
For the rest of Moonlight, we follow Chiron as a boy (played by Hibbert), as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and as a young man (Trevante Rhodes) in pursuit of “Out There,” observing his struggle to break through the confines of what the world around him has to say about being a man, being black, and being gay, even as he has yet to understand what those mean for himself. To know someone on such a level is powerful. To witness his plight is heartbreaking.
This plays out in episodes of confusion and trauma, both in the homophobic abuse he receives from his peers at school and in his strained relationship with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, delivering in the film’s most challenging role), who slides into a crippling crack addiction over the course of the film. We have seen characters like her and Juan before, but their African-American archetypes—unloving addict mother and drug dealer cum paternal presence, respectively—are evinced in order to be upended. Jenkins knows these characters and portrays them in a way that make them more than symbols. They are flesh-and-blood human beings. This is an important distinction because Moonlight operates in a place that understands the grace of black bodies and the empirical nature of black lives. And as it relates to Chiron, the film knows how black masculinity and black sexuality have been appropriated and denigrated. Moonlight’s power comes from its specificity. Calling this film “universal” does not do it justice.
It is not hard to decipher that this is a very personal film for Jenkins and McCraney, who both grew up in the same Miami-area suburbs that are depicted, and its formal qualities reflect that level of care and precision. Jenkins’ use of point-of-view, particularly in shots where a character is staring back into the lens, is one of many tools used to procure a sense of empathy. The cinematography by James Laxton heightens the proceedings—through light, color, and movement—to an almost dream-like beauty. Perhaps most notable, however, is the choice of music, which—in its use of classical, hip-hop, and R&B—is as close to impeccable as one could imagine. But the music also serves to accelerate or relax the pace of the scenes, bringing a sprightly rhythm to moments of discovery and a hushed sensuality to more intimate encounters. If you pay close attention, you will notice that the main musical theme increases in complexity as the film progresses, as if Chiron’s understanding of himself grows like a symphony when new instruments and chords are introduced.
Mirroring Chiron’s coming of age is his childhood friend, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland, all superb). Their relationship takes a number of twists and turns, from confidantes to something more intimate, and it all comes to a head in the final third of the film. This chapter includes a diner scene that feels not unlike a complex dance between two guarded men scarred by betrayal and regret (many critics have likened it to the work of Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-hsien). Trevante Rhodes deserves a great deal of credit here for striking a very difficult balance, presenting a façade of masculinity on the outside but hinting that the same wide-eyed little boy remains in him, and he does it with the most subtle of touches—a lingering look at the man who brought about his sexual awakening or the cracked tone of his voice when giving a one-word response. The scene is brimming with emotion, of a longing for the reconciliation of their unspoken desires. It also connects back to every other interaction between Chiron and those around him, a constant modulation of manufactured perceptions and inward yearnings. How strong should you be? How gentle? And how do you know? In the finale with Kevin, the questions are, “Why are you here? What do you want?” But in every case, it connects to the same central theme: Who are you?
Moonlight ends on a small but satisfying note, resisting the urge to tie its ideas and moments into a neat bow of interpretation or ideology. Yes, you could say this is a film about poverty, race, and their effect on one’s upbringing, but that would be denying the spirit of what is experienced over its 110-minute running time. For me, its closing minutes recall an early scene where Juan teaches young Chrion to swim. This ignored, mistreated, and painfully quiet child will come to understand himself and the world, and even as he fights to stay afloat in the waves of the Atlantic, he is charting his own course. He is free. He is alive.