If you’ve been at all on the fence about whether the new Moonlight will be worth your while, I’m here to tell you to quit your wavering and dive right in. For writer-director Barry Jenkins has created something that demands to be seen—an elegant, fluid, and almost too-intimate drama that you will come out of both crushed and exhilarated. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is, in the most expansive sense of the term, a coming-of-age yarn, told in three parts, each focused on a distinct stage of a man’s life, and each offering exquisite insight into his heart and mind at that point—as well as laying bare the constantly shifting markers and makers of his identity. Promos might have you fooled into thinking this another “issue” movie, one designed to make a sweeping statement about what it’s like to be a gay black man in America, but while it certainly captures part of that broader perspective, there’s also a steadfast commitment to specificity here that is admirable as it is disarming—gaze firmly fixed on this particular person in this particular time and place.
The first time we meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in the predominantly black neighbourhood in Miami where he lives, he’s a scrawny, awkward kid on the run from the bigger boys from his class, who have taken to bullying him for being too “soft”. In times like these, which occur all too often as we soon see, there’s really nowhere for Chiron—or “Little” as he’s been dubbed by said bullies—to turn to: he has just the one friend to speak of, and things are rather unstable on the home front with no father and a crack-addict for a mother (Naomie Harris). But that’s about to change; by some quirk of fate, Little comes under the wing of a local drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), and for the first time in his life, has a “safe place” to go to when things are bad. Juan and Teresa might not be able to solve all of Little’s problems—the bullying, for one, continues unabated—but they do teach him to look inward with honesty, to decide for himself who he is and wants to be, because “You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
It’s a lesson and feeling Chiron will need to hold on to tight over the following years, as becomes clear the second time we see him, a teenager now (played by Ashton Sanders)—still scrawny, still awkward, still on the run from the bullies, and his mother still as dysfunctional as ever. Painful though life is for the boy, this is also a time of discovery and clarity—and belatedly, retribution. Certain events transpire at this stage that set him on a path of no return, leading to the man we meet in the third chapter, the self-styled “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Bulked up and grilled, Black has learned by this time, like many others around him, to perform that particular brand of hyper-masculine, self-aggrandising braggadocio, donning it like protective armour. It’s a great relief, then, when cracks eventually become evident in this carefully-constructed front, giving us a glimpse of the person under the posturing.
Jenkins certainly struck gold in terms of casting; the three actors playing the lead character at different intervals are all terrific, and despite possessing very dissimilar features, are able to drum up such a convincing thread of connection between their parts that it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that we’re truly checking in on the same person over the years. And they’re in great company: Ali, whom you might recall from TV’s House of Cards or, more recently, Luke Cage, makes a memorable, if relatively brief, appearance, and while it does feel like the women here have been given rather short shrift—one of my few quibbles with the film—Harris and Monae still shine within the limitations of their roles.
Moonlight casts its net across a number of big themes, about race, class, sexuality and identity, the pressures imposed by certain narrow, toxic ideals of masculinity—particularly as they apply to the black community in the US—and of course you can’t help but draw a connection between Chiron’s suffering and the larger social and political milieu. But it also skillfully sidesteps clichéd depictions, the kind of stereotypes that tend to populate films seeking to capture various dimensions of the African-American experience, instead putting forth characters that have been fleshed out thoughtfully, layered and nuanced. Juan would be an obvious example of a character you would otherwise assume to have all figured out from the get-go, but turns out to elude that sort of easy summation. And we have Chiron himself, similarly impossible to pin down and even more finely sketched than the rest; indeed, Jenkins contrives to pull us so far into the protagonist’s skin, compelling us to see what he sees and feel what he feels, that it can get overwhelming at times. That feeling of intimacy is upped further by the visual style of the film, where the camera hews close to the people onscreen and rests on the kind of small details in expressions and interactions that would’ve been more than easy to steamroll over. Rather than dialogue, it’s through these moments, sometimes taking place almost entirely in silence, that Moonlight really works its magic. The photography here is gorgeous—awash in a rich, saturated palette and featuring a number of stunning compositions, especially night-time shots. And rounding it all off is the score by Nicholas Britell, a strange, wonderful blend of hip-hop and sweeping orchestral tracks that effectively augments the material and deepens our experience of it.
To sum up, Moonlight is not to be missed; it’s the sort of film you can’t quite shake off for a long time, the kind you become so invested in that it leaves you wishing someone would tell you what happens next, where the characters are now, how they’re doing. If all this isn’t enough to push you over the fence, I don’t know what will be.