by Ken Bakely
Deep below the surface of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, there is an unmistakable sense of longing. It is not overwhelming or even obvious, but it is there. It is what makes us wonder, and look out upon everything we have been shown, and think about how we see ourselves in each conflict on one hand, yet are gracefully shown an environment that the movies usually do not care about in the other.
The film is told in three parts, telling the story of Chiron, a gay, African-American man born and raised in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. We first meet him as a little boy (played by Alex Hibbert), unable to depend on his emotionally unstable mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and informally “adopted” by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a somewhat troubled individual, but cares about Chiron and wants to make sure that there is somebody looking out for him.
We then skip ahead several years, and Chiron is now a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders). Juan has died some time ago, but his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) has taken up a mentoring role, even more important now that Paula has become a crack addict. Chiron is uninterested in the masculine, chauvinistic culture he is surrounded by, and is bullied. He has few friends besides his longtime pal Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). There is a chemistry between them, a flashing romance which flickers and dies, crushed out by circumstances almost instantaneously.
Another few years. Now Chiron is in his twenties (played by Trevante Rhodes), and has moved away from the Grove, and he has been hardened by the world, which was never kind to him. He denies his sexuality, represses his childhood, and has shrouded himself under his muscular frame, but someday, somehow, he’ll have to come back out again.
Moonlight is a film of rich, yet understated, passion. It is joy mixed with sadness, ecstasy mixed with tragedy, elevating the frustrating nature of watching a life limited by its surroundings. Jenkins brings this all to the screen in an impeccably perceptive way. He writes the script, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Midnight Black Boys Look Blue, with a reverent and emotional understanding of the intricacies of personal drama upon the passage of time. The natural scope of a lifespan, from childhood to adulthood, is epic in its own way, but Jenkins is never overwhelmed, choosing relevant moments and using them in a pattern which works marvelously.
Three actors portray Chiron, an approach also used for the character of Kevin. It’s almost startling the degree to which each of the performances seem to logically lead to the next. The transition from segment to segment, actor to actor, is seamless, even as their material differs . Under them all is the same entity, the same driving force and set of conflicted emotions and a personality which is there but also not, evolving but suppressed by whichever means available to suppress it. The character goes beyond the tropes which could have emerged, and becomes a full representation.
This is helped by a strong supporting cast. Mahershala Ali is especially good as Juan, embodying one of those figures which comes into our lives and departs after a little while, but whose impact is immeasurably powerful. In many ways, Chiron becomes Juan, or at least how he saw him. Attempting to portray how each action and event can affect us in the long-run is Moonlight’s 111 minute long thesis, and it’s a case undertaken with great thoroughness. Nothing is random or purely inconsequential. Jenkins doesn’t argue that everything happens for a reason, but he does convey that we are largely the product of our earliest stages, and they build and build upon each other. The painful, strained relationship between Chiron and his mother is heartrending, but to watch it change over time is necessary, and we fill in the blanks with our minds as each new iteration reveals itself.
Moonlight is staggering in how it juggles all these principles, these events, these people. It is a story about a black man, but not a “black story.” It is a story about a gay man, but not a “gay story.” Jenkins and McCraney reach far beyond any of the limitations or labels we may apply. They present the film as a meditation on a single life, and let us see how it is shaped, and how the past is reconciled, and how the present and the future handle those connections. In a way, you could argue that this would mean that the goal here is simple – create a profile. But there are very few ways that I could imagine such a character piece being more vivid, humanistic, and powerful.