In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) semiautobiographical coming-of-age story, we follow the three life stages of Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a young African-American boy trying to figure out his identity in Liberty City, a rough Miami neighborhood.
Chiron, who is nicknamed “Little,” is bullied relentlessly by neighborhood boys, who have decided that he is gay because in their eyes he is different. Chiron is gentle, nonviolent, introverted and so afraid of the world that awaits him, he barely speaks. Unfortunately, home is not a safe haven for Chiron because of his crack-addicted mother, Paula, played brilliantly by Naomie Harris. At times, Paula’s love for crack outweighs her love for her son, who is often left to fend for and protect himself.
As much as Moonlight highlights the weight of poverty, addiction and discovering one’s sexual identity in the worst of circumstances, the film celebrates the beautiful and complicated relationships that emerge from these precarious conditions.
One such relationship is Chiron’s friendship with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Cuban-born drug dealer who takes the boy under his wing. Ali is outstanding as a man living a criminal lifestyle, but mentally free from it. Ali and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take in a young Chiron, feeding, clothing and providing shelter for him. They also provide a safe space for a young boy in search of stability, acceptance and unconditional love.
While Chiron tries to shield himself from the world by building a wall around his heart, Kevin (Jaden Piner) is able to build a friendship with him, teaching him to fight back against his aggressors. A teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remain friends despite the fact that Chiron is still being bullied and Kevin is becoming the school player. Chiron and Kevin’s friendship supersedes the shallow nature of high school friendships, with frank discussions about life and their feelings, while cultivating a real connection.
Their intimate connection is evident when they reconnect 10 years later as adult men in a brilliant scene in a diner. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has adopted a look that is so hypermasculine, Kevin (André Holland) asks him, “Who is you, Chiron?” Rhodes' and Holland’s on-screen chemistry is reminiscent of that of Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) in 1969’s Academy Award-winning Midnight Cowboy or Langston (Ben Ellison) and Beauty (Matthew Baidoo) in 1989’s seminal film Looking for Langston.
Jenkins’ direction of the film is masterful as he manages to sidestep what could very easily be stereotypical or clichéd representations of poverty, black sexuality and masculinity by providing a layered, compelling story of two boys becoming two men in life and love. The performances are understated yet powerful. Jenkins’ character development is relentless, digging into the minds and hearts of viewers with each scene. As viewers learn about the characters, they also learn about themselves.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, stylistically, the film makes excellent use of the color in the cinematography, along with bright reds and lush scenery to symbolize the beauty and pain of figuring out who you are in a world that has already determined who you should be. Cinematographer James Laxton (Medicine for Melancholy; Adult World) is able to capture the beauty of difficult places through the use of muted tones and tight camera angles that visually reflect the suffocating effects of living under so many social, economic and geographical constraints.
Jenkins’ choice of music weaves the film together into what can only be called a masterpiece. Featuring Goodie Mob, Barbara Lewis and Mozart, the music in the film is in service to the subject of the film, bridging the narrative and stylistic elements seamlessly. According to Jenkins, Nicholas Britell (The Big Short; Free State of Jones) applied the hip-hop musical technique of “chopped and screwed” to the score. Britell “chopped and screwed” the orchestra, composing a score that is as delicate as it is strong and as classical as it is hip, and pulls together an infectious film that challenges the heart and mind, giving voice to young black boys and men in search of themselves.
Check out our exclusive interview with Moonlight star, Andre Holland:
Moonlight opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, Oct. 21. The film will be in wide release Friday, Oct. 28. Check local movie theater listings for showtimes.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.