Moonlight: A Film by Barry Jenkins
We are re-publishing Stefen’s spot-on review of Moonlight for obvious reasons!
There really couldn’t be any simpler film than Moonlight – a young man named Chiron comes of age in a poor section of Miami. Yet, to signal just how perceptive and multilayered this film will be, director Barry Jenkins opens with a power move: an extended long take in which the camera never sits still, circling the actors like an anxious lion. It’s an amazing display of bravura directing, made even more potent when echoed later in the film at a crucial plot point. But it’s also Jenkins’s wake-up clap to the audience. For despite the film’s low-key tone, aided by such impressive, just downright beautiful camerawork, Moonlight is a revelation of nuanced characters and plot and exposition.
Adapted from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unproduced play by MacArthur-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is divided into three sections. Each chronicles a brief span in the life of Chiron, played by a different actor in each part. In the first, quiet nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) has the world arrayed against him: picked on by boys at school, the word “faggot” thrown around; being raised by his single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) who though a loving and devoted parent is fighting a growing drug addiction. Chiron’s one source of stability and unconditional support is a kindly drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, in a welcome contrast to his turn as the villain in Netflix’s Luke Cage) and his girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae.
Part two concerns Chiron’s burgeoning awareness of his sexuality and the development of a friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Chiron the teenager (Ashton Sanders) is guarded and obviously aware of his difference. The grade-school teasing has morphed into outright high school violence. What little tenderness and intimacy he finds with Kevin is horribly undone near the chapter’s conclusion.
In the third section, Chiron the man (Trevante Rhodes) now lives in Atlanta and goes by the street name “Black.” He’s adopted all the outer trappings of his early mentor Juan – beefy physique, do-rag, gold grill, and the drug dealing. He’s no longer physically vulnerable, but remains near-solitary and shutdown. A late-night phone call from Kevin (a witty Andre Holland) brings him back to Miami. Chiron and Kevin’s reunion and all it entails is the soul of the film.
But back to the film’s beauty. Jenkins gets everything right in Moonlight. He particularly understands how innocuous moments between two friends – a glance, a wrestling match – are fraught with puzzlement and fear, even excitement when one of them is gay. Aided by incredible actors, Jenkins doesn’t allow Paula to fall into the stereotype of the single, drug-addicted parent, and creates in Ali as Juan one of the more complex characters to appear on any screen. Then there is the setting. Jenkins captures Miami’s lushness in sumptuous, wide shots that draws nature into the film as another character.
Standout mention must be made for the three actors as Chiron. They don’t resemble each other physically. Instead, they possess a unity of expression — an eloquent reticence, if there is such a thing — that must be witnessed and makes you believe they are the same person. Whoever cast Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes knew exactly what they were doing.
While watching Moonlight I was reminded of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, another film about life in what’s called the “inner city” and clearly an influence on Jenkins. Mainly because both movies contradict stereotypical expectations. There are no shootings, no gangs; the drama occurs in life’s quiet moments between people who love each other. The main characters are sensitive, thoughtful and vulnerable black men, depictions not often seen in popular media – in other words people rather than headlines. And that’s the true beauty of Moonlight.