"Moonlight" is a vital, magical portrait of identity
By Dominic Griffin
Nov 01, 2016 | 1:42 PM
Before "Moonlight" even begins, Boris Gardiner's "Every Nigger Is A Star" plays over production company logos, immediately telegraphing the uniquely black narrative about to unfold. Much has been made about Barry Jenkins' sophomore directorial effort and its relevance to filmic diversity—"Moonlight" is an island unto itself, presenting blackness as a mere matter of fact, not some bold new act. There are no white speaking roles to be found anywhere in its two-hour running time, but just like the film's portrayal of masculinity, this isn't intended to be daring, rather, it just is. In "Moonlight," Jenkins has captured the world finally as it truly is, as it feels, rather than how it has heretofore been presented on screen. That's not revolutionary. If anything, that's course correction.
Taking place in Miami and covering the early '80s to the present day, "Moonlight" is split between three distinct chapters, each set years apart. In the first, we meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), an ostracized black youth who goes by the name "Little." His first moments on screen involve him hiding in an abandoned dope house to escape bullying children hurling rocks and homophobic epithets in his direction. He develops a surrogate family relationship with a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe). One of Juan's biggest customers is Chiron's mother Paula (Naomie Harris), whose addiction leaves her son a lost latchkey kid struggling to understand why the other kids call him slurs.
The next chapter finds Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school. He spends a lot of nights staying over at Theresa's when Paula needs the house to herself, typically to get high with strange men. Any money Theresa gives him ends up in Paula's hands paying for her next fix. At school, with hormones raging, he's even more adrift with his own sexuality. Since childhood, people around him have ascribed homosexuality as the root cause of his quirks and it's a label that has followed him. The closest thing he's got to a friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a mischievous horndog who's always seemed to understand Chiron better than others, perhaps even better than himself. The two share an intimacy that feels too good to be true before outside forces bring reality crashing in.
The film's final chapter, perhaps its most transcendent, checks back in with Chiron as an adult (Trevante Rhodes) who goes by the name "Black" (Kevin's former nickname for him.) This Chiron seems so far removed from the one we've followed thus far, shrouded in a hardened exoskeleton of performative masculinity that's scabbed over a lifetime of open wounds. Without giving up the ghost here, a chance encounter with Kevin (André Holland) at a diner brings back a flood of memories and unrequited feelings, forcing the film's two leads, and the audience, to engage with the scenes they've experienced.
Each act exists as its own isolated snapshot of Chiron's life. Viewed solo, the individual acts function like gallery installations, exploding specific emotional moments in time outward into a collection of images, sounds, and textures. But it's only once the film has finished and the larger tapestry becomes visible that its achievements begin to take shape. The intertextual relations between each time period say so much about the power of memory and trauma over the shaping of identity. Many films treat characterization as a simple equation of past motivations informing future traits, but this film digs deeper into examining key psychological occurrences as building blocks for the protagonist's sense of self. A word of encouragement from Kevin as a child may influence a formative moment for Chiron late in the second act, or we'll note heavy similarities to Juan in the way Chiron carries himself as an adult.
In this alone, Jenkins has found an evocative approach to semi-autobiographical storytelling, grafting his own experiences growing up in Miami with a drug addicted mother to his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." Between Jenkins' own life history and McCraney's perspective of gay adolescence, the film possesses a voice that is at once niche and global. From a writing stance, there are bits of character observed with a universality that will ground the story for audience members who are neither black nor gay, especially in the first chapter's representation of childhood otherness. There's a scene with Chiron and the younger Kevin (Jaden Piner) wrestling in a field that captures something both carefree and tumultuous about that time in any young boy's life, regardless of race or upbringing. Those moments are filmed with a specificity that belies their unifying power.
But visually, Jenkins' international influences paint his Floridian recollections with a fascinating light. Cinematographer James Laxton lenses Miami like an outpost on a foreign world, an exotic lay space hanging onto the raggedy southern edge of America. By imbuing a nearly neorealist approach to exploring blackness on screen with a magical sense of wonder, "Moonlight" is the closest a film in recent memory has come to striking a balance between what we know to be real about the world around us and how we feel about our place in it. Every minute of this high wire act is as astonishing to behold as the last.
Jenkins' debut film "Medicine For Melancholy" hinted at this potential, but watching "Moonlight," it's striking how much Jenkins has grown as a storyteller in the ensuing eight years. You can see Claire Denis in some of his framing and feel the presence of Wong Kar Wai in his use of color and music, but above all else, it marks the arrival of a confident, capable voice in film. Behind the sharp script and loping visual motifs, this creative surety is most evident in the performances Jenkins has helped to curate. The three talented young men who portray Chiron throughout the film don't share an abundance of physical similarities, but each maintains imperceptible tics and mannerisms that stitch a throughline from chapter to chapter. The resulting effect is 10 times as significant as the work done in something like "Boyhood" because it doesn't feel like a gimmick, just expert filmcraft.
Though "Moonlight" is liable to wet your eyes at any given moment, it never feels emotionally manipulative. The film doesn't tug at your heartstrings the way other prestige dramas tend to. Instead, deeply relatable moments are presented in such a way as to awaken unresolved feelings within the viewer, generating a feedback loop of emotional empathy. The triumph is the bittersweet balance it strikes. Jenkins doesn't shy away from lingering on moments of the pain and betrayal Chiron feels from Paula's maternal failings, but he counteracts them with nourishing images of Juan and Theresa's unmitigated affection.
It's that full spectrum of expression that gives "Moonlight" its transformative power. If there's a flaw to be found, some will balk at the conclusion's open ended nature. The film doesn't possess one of those purposefully frustrating indie movie endings where the credits roll the moment the filmmakers ran out of ideas. "Moonlight" finishes not on a period or an exclamation point, but an ellipsis. Chiron lives in the moments between chapters and will continue doing so once the possessory credit fades into view.