The buzz about Moonlight started after its premiere at Telluride. Since then, it’s been one of the most sought out films on the festival circuit. And it should be. Moonlight is a magnificent film that doesn’t exploit itself or its message. Instead, it simply tells us a story of beauty, bittersweet irony that allows us make our own decisions and conclusions.
Told in three parts of a man’s life, the film begins with a nine year old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) who is called Little. Director Barry Jenkins instantly makes us relate and sympathize with the main character in a heart-wrenching scene in which Chiron is chased by the neighborhood kids into an abandoned building. As Jenkins camera hovers over Little like the bullies he runs from, Jenkins also uses sound to put us in Little’s world. A cacophony of inaudible yelling and knocking on the door torments our ears, as it does Little.
Juan (Mahershala Ali), the kingpin drug dealer of the block, looks after Little, who doesn’t speak accept for when he’s being fed. After trying to reunite Little with his mother (Naomie Harris), Juan quickly finds out that she’s one of the fiends that he serves. From then on, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) take care of Little when his mother neglects him for whatever reason. So when Little asks Juan “What’s a faggot?” due to bullying, there is an incredible dynamic between the machismo of Juan and the innocence of Little. The beauty in watching a crack dealer provide love and support for a young child while ironically continuing to kill his mother slowly are some of the touches that the movie offers up, with no judgment.
As Little grows into Chiron (Ashton Sanders) the teenager in the second act, the bullying hasn’t stopped. In fact, it seems like a state of the way things are. Chiron’s only friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who has been his friend as a child, but is now a pretty boy and ladies man. It’s in the story of teenage Chiron that we see a point of intersection between the first time he has a sexual experience and when he’s decided he’s had enough of the bullying. This takes us into the final act of the film where we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes), the muscle bound shell of machismo that Chiron has built himself into.
The entire cast of Moonlight does an outstanding job! Mahershala Ali gives Juan the iron fist and open hand that’s needed for us to see the irony in the first act. Harris’s Paula is the only character to be in each act as a steady force in Chiron’s life whether for good or bad, and it stings. Each version of Chiron and Kevin throughout the years bring something different to the table, building off of one another and handing off the baton in a perfect relay race. In the Q&A after the screening I saw of the film, Jenkins said that he never allowed the actors to meet. Knowing that, makes the film that much more impressive.
Based off of the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight tells a story that’s rarely heard in regard to black male sexuality and displayed without drama. Without ever using the word gay or having a coming out moment, the film simply shows. Jenkins use of restraint and excellent craftsmanship will definitely put Moonlight in the ring during awards season!