There’s a strange dichotomy in today’s society, while we’re a lot more open towards gender, race and sexuality and allowing people of all types to come forward and be who they are without judgement, there’s another side of us that hates this to the point of murdering anyone who is openly different. With the Black Lives Matter movement in America and the Orlando shooting last year the decision to be yourself as a black or gay individual comes with the threat that people out there want to hurt you for something you have no control over, so do you make that choice, do you be who you want to be, or do you hide away and hope nobody sees through your armour.
That’s the question Moonlight asks, while it’s an intensely personal and intimate film charting the life of a black man in Miami through three distinct chapters across 20 years of his life, there’s an element to this film that can have it transcribe to anyone who’s had to hide themselves from who they are. It’s a timeless tale and even if you don’t agree that it’s one of the best of the year, there’s no denying its importance.
As mentioned above the film takes place over three chapters of the life of Chiron, a black youth growing up in one of the most impoverished areas of America. The three chapters track some of the most important events of his life and what shapes him into who he becomes and who he will be after the credits roll. In the first chapter; i: Little, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is 9 years old, living with his drug addicted single mother Pauline (Naomie Harris) and relentlessly bullied for being tiny and meek with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner) being a friend. When Chiron is picked up by a drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) he’s shown comfort for the first time in his life and start looking towards Juan as a father figure, much to the annoyance of his mother. With finally someone to open up to, Chiron starts questioning what other people, including his own mother, see in him that he hasn’t figured out yet.
Chapter 2; ii: Chiron, picks up with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) at about 18, 19 in High School where he’s closed himself off from everyone around him but is still bullied and tormented daily by Terrel (Patrick Decile), a young thug without a care. Pauline is now addicted to crack and alternates between being affectionate or violent whenever her need gets too much to handle meaning Chiron can’t even escape in his home life. Again only Kevin (Jharrell Jerome) provides Chiron with any sign of friendship, even nicknaming him Black, however this friendship puts Chiron in a vulnerable position when Kevin struggles with peer pressure put on him from Terrel, leading to a violent confrontation.
The final chapter, iii: Black, finds Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in his late 20s having toughened up and grown stronger, now living in Atlanta as a drug dealer when he gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland), who he hasn’t seen since high school, asking if he can come back to Miami to visit him. Despite everything they’ve been through Chiron makes the trip back home only to find himself back in a vulnerable position that threatens to tear down the image he’s made for himself.
All three chapters are incredible pieces of identity and self-discovery with Chiron’s struggle to embrace his homosexuality in an environment that openly berates and discourages it being the meat of the story. From learning what being gay is, to his first experience with sex and love to the cracks in his armour falling away, the arc Chiron takes is recognisable, tragic and poetic, even by the end things are left unresolved. That’s to the film’s credit though, the way things play out each chapter represents one event in Chiron’s life, we don’t see the beginning, the end or anything in between but the moments we do see allow us to see the way this character is shaped and how these events turn him into the man he is.
The acting is incredible with at least one of the cast going away with an Oscar win, most likely Ali, appearing in just the first chapter he does a lot with Juan as a character but in a very subdued and understated manner. What makes Juan great is that despite being a drug dealer he never feels like a stereotype, taking Chiron under his wing doesn’t lead to teaching him the drug trade or grooming him sexually, instead he’s teaching him to swim and about learning to live with your own identity, he’s a kind soul in an ugly world and recognises the struggle that the young boys is facing. All the while feeling guilt over his own product being sold to Pauline and being the reason why Chiron has such a harsh life.
Pauline herself is just as complex. She recognises her son’s homosexuality even as a boy but does nothing to prepare, encourage or help her son deal with his own confused thoughts and feelings. As the years get on her drug addiction worsens to where she’s openly attacking Chiron for money but at the same time treating her sweetly and motherly, whether these are rare lucid moments or faked are unknown but it adds to the already confused mind of Chiron about where he fits in. Harris just nails the twitchy, hateful nature of a junkie but never goes into parody, she’s much too tragic a character to go that far and the realism – Pauline is based off the mothers of the writer and the director – that she handles just add to that.
Chiron might be the main character but growing up alongside him is Kevin, arguably the most important person in his life outside of Jaun. As a child, Kevin is just a friendly sort who teaches Chiron how to stand up for himself, he doesn’t come into his own until a teenager where his lone friendly treatment of Chiron has the two of them get closer before finally as an adult he’s able to confront Chiron over where their lives have gone. Kevin is such an integral part of the film because he’s a constant in Chiron’s life, showing him the purest form of love and the bitterest form of hate in equal measures. And yet at the same time he shares in Chiron’s inability to admit to himself about who he is, where Chiron hides away Kevin overcompensates which is what brings out the violence that closes out Chapter 2 and leads into the regretful reunion in Chapter 3.
Finally there was Chiron, and across all three actors who play him we’re shown one of the most interesting characters of the year. As a child we’re given a runt of a boy, too shy and too ashamed to speak but clever enough and intuitive enough to look after himself when his mother gets lost on herself, this may be Hibbert’s first role but he shows a surprising amount of emotional resonance and bravery in such a young actor that his future is going to be big. As a teenager Chiron’s attempts to hide his homosexuality has turned him into an angry and emotionally distant young man who struggles everyday with bullies and grief, Sanders injects the character with something pathetic but only in regards to someone still coming to terms with who they are and not wanting to admit to themselves the truth. The one time Chiron allows someone to get close to him it just ends so horribly and Sanders captures that heartbreak so perfectly that you can’t help but fear the film is coming to a much harsher and more abrupt ending. As an adult Chiron has completely masked himself in order to reinvent himself in Atlanta, even going so far as to be a mirror-image of Juan, but the return of Kevin to his life complicates things that he’s tried to forget about for nearly a decade. While Hibbert and Sanders give the character a closed off, shy demeanour, Rhodes is much more open and confident but on a surface level, the minute he’s reintroduced to Kevin he reverts to the shy, unsure teenager he was last time they met and there’s a surprisingly vulnerability that Rhodes brings to the character, you can see him struggling with letting Kevin get too close and just wanting to remember what love is through just his body language, it’s an amazing thing to witness.
Director Barry Jenkins manages to do, in only his second feature, what many other accomplished filmmakers would struggle with and creates a film with the passion and the pathos to live up to its subject matter without feeling cheesy or preachy. There’s a realism to the whole thing that keeps it grounded through the use of hand-held cameras and long-takes to hit home just how common Chiron’s struggle is and how disheartening it is to watch him suffer alone. Even still Jenkins allows himself brief moments of style to punctuate an important scene through the use of style, as in one slo-mo scene where Pauline yells at young Chiron, we don’t hear what she shouts but in context we’re to understand that it’s a homosexual slur that Chiron is too young to understand.
More commonly though Jenkins makes his point through a complete lack of style, dropping all music, limiting camera movements and letting the scene play itself out naturally. There’s one of key moment like this in each chapter, the first is when young Chiron questions Juan about selling drugs to his mother leading to a tough but heartbreaking conversation, the entire third chapter is essentially this with the reunion between Chiron and Kevin carrying a lot of emotional weight and drama behind it. The reason for that weight being The Beach Scene in chapter 2, the best part of the film where teenage Chiron and Kevin have a heart-to-heart about their ambitions in life and how the world is getting them down, leading to one of the rare moments in the film where Chiron is able to open up emotionally and feel the love he’s missed for so long. With the dark sky cloaking everything but them, the camera brought in close so nothing else but the intimacy between the two men on screen and nothing on the soundtrack but the sound of the ocean – a recurring motif that carries throughout all three chapters – this is the moment that stands out in terms of filmmaking, acting and writing.
I could go on a lot more, talking about the wonderfully melancholic cinematography that takes a snapshot of impoverished lives in Black America or the orchestral score that adds to the power of the film by feeling huge in scale but intimate in scope. But honestly this film speaks for itself, Moonlight just gets you in a place few films can manage, you don’t need to be black or gay to understand or recognise what the film is saying, its importance lies in how it’s able to relate the struggles of one man’s attempts to hide from himself into the lives of anyone else. The story is timeless, the acting sublime and the direction filled with grace and pathos, if this doesn’t go down as one of the most vital films of the 21st Century then we’re one step further away from answering that question.