It’s hard to put this film experience into words. Moonlight is such a piece of poetry, that in all of its harsh exterior, there is this deep poetic brilliance that rhythmically carries the film. The film is split into three parts, which are titled after the various stages of the protagonist’s early life: Little, Chiron and Black, played by actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively.
The first highlight of the film is the amazing cast of actors. All three playing Chiron are equally stellar, and so is the supporting cast of Mahershala Ali playing Little’s mentor Juan, Janelle Monae playing Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend and the eventual constant in Chiron’s life. Naomie Harris is the fragile mother playing Paula, and Andre Holland, the adult Kevin, Chiron’s childhood friend.
On the surface this film is a coming of age story, a tragic romance, a tragic caricature of being different and a story about human perseverance at its best. But the heart of the narrative is a cry for life, a cry for love, a cry to be oneself … just trying to go through life and attempting to make sense of it all.
In its first part we meet a young black kid who is constantly harassed at school for being a ‘softie.’ He is mocked, picked on and even his friend Kevin tells him to toughen up, or else be called a faggot all his life. Little meets Juan, who is a drug dealer and made his money doing that. Juan and Chiron form this natural bond and a sort of mentorship begins. Juan’s home, along with Teresa, are Chiron’s refuge from his own, where his mother is slowly declining as she takes to addiction. The young Chiron is this perfect representation of a child coming into this world of utterly confused human weakness, violence and a struggle to survive. Hibbert is indomitable as the stoic young boy who doesn’t manage more than three words at one time.
Part two is the teenager Chiron, who is now the quiet mannered boy in skinny jeans and still continuously being picked on. The palpable horrors that come with being ‘different’ in a world that frowns at anything that is not normative, is bone chilling at times and equally tragic. The turning point of the film couldn’t have been more affecting, while masked as a mere exploration of youthful sexuality and lust.
Moonlight is stunningly shot, with a lot of handheld and attention to lighting, camera and how it traverses various characters and their individual demons. While Chiron remains the heart of the narrative, none of the supporting cast seem superfluous; it’s as if not one of them was dispensable no matter how small their part.
The film is paced like a poem, which begins with a few early thoughts introducing the fragility of the human condition in doses. Then keeping the same pace the poetry turns tragic and more affecting. By the time the third part rolls on, Chiron has become Black (a nickname Kevin had for him), but that becomes the only identity that he ever knew. Obviously, the harsh and steel exterior speaks volumes of the trauma and hardship in his life, with little reprieve throughout every frame of Moonlight. Black moves to Atlanta and pursues what Juan taught him, building himself from scratch, wearing a shield of steel all around him.
Kevin ventures back into his life sporadically and takes him back to the time when they sat on the beach gazing into the Moonlight, sharing their adolescent vulnerabilities, that spoke of young love, but also a yearning that will stay with them forever. I haven’t seen black masculinity explored like this before; the emotional quotient that Jenkins brings to this is pretty unmatched.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this is cinematic brilliance.
Moonlight is now playing in theatres.