I don’t cry often, but the second time I saw Moonlight, I wept as it began. I listened to Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star” sweep into the theater over a dark screen, knowing that the next 111 minutes would prove so absorbing that I would forget I existed outside of this dark theater. That when it was over, I could return to see myself — the good and the bad — from a perspective I had yet to consider.
This brief catharsis proved to me that Moonlight is more than just a film, or piece of entertainment; it’s lasting therapy for broken hearts and depressed minds, packaged brilliantly in green and blue. It’s a warm message presented in the form of a singular life that the viewer appreciates through the lens of his or her own experiences of love. Thus, it can’t be reviewed as a standard piece of art, but can only be analyzed through the subjective emotions with which the viewer is willing to unearth during the screening.
Moonlight tells the coming-of-age story of Chiron, a black man born in Miami’s projects during America’s drug-riddled ’80s. It’s broken into three segments that document the main character first as young boy, then as a teenager, and finally in his mid-20s. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron, respectively, as he struggles with his mother’s escalating drug addiction and his own budding sexuality. Naomi Harris, Mahershala Ali, André Holland, and Janelle Monáe round out the supporting cast.
The most striking aspect of Barry Jenkins’ sophomore project is the writer/director’s exacting calibration of the material: everything works in unison. Cinematographer James Laxton composes saturation-drenched frames with exquisite care — this is most notable in his several single takes, such as the one offered in the film’s first scene. His detailed work allows editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon to cut as infrequently as possible, thus presenting the film’s characters with undeniable honesty: the longer we watch them uninterrupted, the more real they begin to feel. The editors also often linger on a scene’s final frame, allowing for moments that serve as tasty morsels on which one can build stronger foundations for these characters. Nicholas Britell’s score accents it all, utilizing heavy strings and woodwinds, blanketed in reverb, that refuse to tell you how to feel but mandate that you at least feel something.
It’s difficult to single out any performance, especially considering the film used three actors for its protagonist; such a decision proves representative of an entire cast devoted wholeheartedly to the material, rather than themselves. No one stands between this film and its message.
The most memorable might be Mahershala Ali, who plays a wealthy, benevolent drug dealer named Juan. He mentors Chiron in “Little”, the film’s first of three chapters. Naomie Harris is the only actor to receive screen time in each of the film’s parts, as she plays Chiron’s mother, Paula. Remarkably, she manages to create a consistent, three-dimensional character, despite finding herself suffering through varying degrees of addiction throughout her life.
It would be a disservice to ignore the talented men who play Chiron, particularly Rhodes. His hulking figure at first surprises when compared to the slender frames of Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders. Despite his muscles and size, Rhodes manages to maintain the delicate nature Hibbert and particularly Sanders cultivate in Chiron, thanks to the tender moments he shares with his lifelong love interest, Kevin (played by André Holland in “Black”, the third chapter).
Jenkins highlights Chiron’s identity crisis not only with his chapter titles (“Little”, “Chiron” and “Black”), but also in regards to how other characters refer to the protagonist. All but his mother refuse to call the hero by the name assigned to him in the chapter’s title card. When young Chiron first meets Teresa (Janelle Monáe), he tells her his name is Chiron, but that people call him Little. “Well, I’m going to call you by your name, Chiron,” she replies, and continues to do so, as does Juan, thus helping the young boy take his first step towards self-acceptance.
In the second chapter, “Chiron”, the protagonist’s relationship with a teenaged Kevin starts to develop; the love interest affectionately calls him Black throughout the chapter, until Chiron comments on it, asking Kevin, “What kinda dude gives another dude a nickname?” Finally, in “Black”, when Chiron returns to see Kevin, the latter calls him by his given name, rather than the pet name he used in the second chapter. It’s through Kevin’s complete acceptance of Chiron’s self-identity that he can continue to fully accept himself, no matter how small of a step forward that might be.
Though Jenkins states the project was quite personal — he grew up in Miami’s projects, and his mother struggled with addiction — he adapted Moonlight from a teleplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, entitled In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. McCraney’s childhood experiences were similar to Jenkins’, but it is frankly hard to envision the film as a play, considering its reliance on visual storytelling.
Perhaps the most notable moments are those that concern themselves with sexual interaction, of which there is at least one for each chapter. The first proves to be a sneak attack: after a young Chiron wrestles a young Kevin (Jaden Piner), Jenkins quickly cuts to Chiron in the aftermath, lying on his back in the grass, staring at the clouds and breathing hard, akin to how someone might position themselves after a bout of passionate lovemaking. It’s not until this shot that the importance of the boys’ wrestling becomes clear, and even a moment as simple as this proves a momentously powerful achievement of moviemaking magic. The remaining sex scenes are softer, more delicate, and serve more as a series of tantalizing images in close-up that evoke Chiron’s inner feelings, rather than just the sexual action itself.
But the film’s most affecting moment occurs near the end of “Little”, when Juan takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him how to swim. Juan helps Chiron float, cradling his head, and in essence baptizing him into his thus far unexplored sexuality, manhood, and blackness. Symbolism pours from every action in this scene, whether it be Chiron finally taking his first few strokes by himself, as Juan jovially laughs at his accomplishment, or Chiron finding himself separated by the waves from Juan, as if suggesting that sometimes the only one who can help you stay afloat is yourself. This is a deeply moving scene.
Despite its melancholy, and at times upsetting subject matter, Moonlight is a film with a genuine, openhearted message: love survives. Surely the hardest of hearts would be moved by this beautiful film.