The fact is that life for a black Americans is markedly different than that of a white Americans is a fact that few are willing to admit – look at today’s political landscape to see this point illustrated in real time. So much of that failing to understand is rooted in a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to try and contextualize the societal issues that perpetuate the divide. The new film from director Barry Jenkins, Moonlight, follows the life of one young black man at three separate stages of his life, starting from the age of 9 and concluding as a fully grown adult. Moonlight is an affecting piece of cinema, one that looks at the cyclical nature that engulfs generations of black men and the demands of masculinity that make countless people shun their true nature.
As a young boy, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), also known as Little, faces bullies on a daily basis that target him for his diminutive stature. One day while hiding from his tormentors, Chiron is aided by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, who feeds the young man and looks after him. Chiron is hesitant to speak to Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but that doesn’t stop the couple from looking after the young boy. Juan’s relationship with Chiron rubs the young boy’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) the wrong way, with the young mother taking exception to her drug dealer befriending her son. Throughout the turmoil that surrounds their lives, Juan looks after Chiron with a paternal caring that transcends his illicit trade.
In a brief supporting role, Mahershala Ali once again proves why he’s one of the actors currently in heavy demand. It’s a soulful supporting performance that should be considered for multiple awards, as Ali’s Juan imparts life lesson upon the young Chiron. Moonlight features one of the funniest cutaways in movies this year, with Juan placed in the uncomfortable situation of trying to explain the meaning of the slur “faggot.” As Juan tries to contextualize the slur even further than necessary, Jenkins cuts away to Teresa just shaking her head as a means to tell Juan to quit while he’s ahead.
The second chapter of Moonlight has Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in high school. He still struggles with bullies and is still reluctant to speak up. His mother’s problems with drugs persist, and Chiron often finds himself seeking refuge at Teresa’s place; for reasons that are never made clear, Juan has died a short while before. The lone bright spot in life for Chiron is his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Complicating matters for Chiron are the questions swirling internally about his own sexuality, the young man’s emerging crush on his friend creating an internal tension. Despite a moment of tenderness between the two young men, things come crashing down when Kevin is pressured into fighting Chiron at the behest of bullies. Seething with rage, Chiron takes his vengeance out on a ringleader and is promptly arrested.
The third and final chapter of Moonlight has Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult, having fully morphed into a younger version of Juan. Chiron wears the same sort of do-rag and drives a similar car as Juan did, and has even taken up the drug trade in another similarity to his mentor. In older age, Chiron still hasn’t become comfortable expressing himself, still barely speaking and often in a quiet hush. An unexpected call from Kevin (André Holland) all these years later leads to an awkward reunion, where the two reunite and discuss the varied aspects of their life, each having spent time in the prison system. All these years later and Chiron still guards all of his feelings of his own sexuality, as if any honesty would diminish the harsh exterior necessary for his trade.
Through three chapters, we’re witness to a character that has all these external forces perpetuating a vicious cycle, and repressing his true self in order to save face in a crudely masculine world. One moment of violent lashing out against his tormentors set Chiron on a path of incarceration and the drug trade, a far cry from the shy child we’re first introduced to. The evolution of Chiron is a heartbreaking journey, one that takes a child of limitless promise and contorts him into statistic.
Probably the closest cinematic relative to Moonlight would be Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, in the manner with which both movies follow a character as they grow up through life. Of course, Moonlight won’t receive the same amount of press for its story because Barry Jenkins didn’t follow around one actor for 12 years to craft his story. But the similarities between the two also illustrate the remarkable differences in the experience of poor white Americans and poor black Americans. As shown in Boyhood, the path upward is much easier as opposed to the path upward available for the characters of Moonlight, all of which underscores the cyclical word that Chiron is thrown into.
Moonlight is an emotionally affecting story that unfolds through so many different facets that amplify its robust themes of the factors that affect black youth and the elements of masculinity that demand people repress their true nature. It’s a marvelously acted portrait, with each of its three leads carrying more than their weight in conveying the internal struggle that Chiron experiences from his youth. The film is also dazzling visually, with the cinematography by James Laxton giving the movie a naturalistic beauty even when employing extremely stylized cinematic techniques. Along with The Fits and Morris From America, Moonlight is another example of strong independent filmmaking that is placing young black characters front and center. Barry Jenkins’ film is a lovely character study that retains its beauty even while examining ugly topics and their ugly effect on society.