There’s a moment in the middle of Moonlight where Chiron — the main character, a queer young black man growing up in a poverty stricken Florida — sits in the principal’s office after being pummeled to pulp by bullies. Here the principal, a seemingly well-intentioned woman, brings up the idea of manhood. “You don’t even know,” the forever quiet Chiron says, breaking into tears. She stands up to console him, offering banal platitudes on ‘how hard it can be.’
It’s one of the many amazing moments of Moonlight, a film that offers a rare glimpse into how excruciating it it can be for non-traditional male-identifying individuals to grow up under the blanket of toxic masculinity. I may not be black, but I grew up in poverty outside the mold of typical masculinity — and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie capture that quiet repression so powerfully as Barry Jenkins has here. It’s a particularly wonderful feat considering Chiron never says anything close to a monologue — never divulging the secret world inside of him — but still manages to comes across as one of the most fully realized characters American cinema has painted in recent memory.
Yet in Chiron’s world people don’t have the benefit of the viewer’s lens — to them he remains a cypher. “Who is you, Chiron?” he’s memorably asked by Kevin, a romantic partner. “I’m me,” Chiron replies. But the world won’t let Chiron just be himself, people seek to define him and dissect the multitudes contained inside him.
“What’s a faggot?” Chiron asks as a child to Juan, his sole paternal figure.
“Faggot is a word people use to hurt gay people,” Juan replies.
The young child sits in silence for a moment. “Am I a faggot?” he asks. You can see the longing in Juan’s eyes as he wishes he knew how to help, the helplessness in feeling there’s nothing he can do, and the pain when he realizes how hard life will be for the quiet, frail boy at his dinner table.
This isn’t all to say Moonlight is some Jenga tower of quietly powerful scenes. In fact, a special feat of the film is how economical it is in execution, storywise. Character study indie films often have the fatal flaw of moving about like a sailboat on gentle waves, more concerned with focusing on the character’s day to day actions than progression of story. But in Moonlight, every scene, every piece of dialogue, serves to further the story.
Perhaps part of this has to do with the structure: three moments in Chiron’s life, starting in childhood, leading to adolescence, and ending on adulthood. Each section unfolds like its own short film with a full structure and riveting climax.
This does not mean the sections don’t build on one another. Even though the third section could easily be watched without the context of the previous two, it would not have the same emotional wallop. Little details, showing us how the past bleeds into the future, serve to buttress each scene in the moment and retrospectively (similar to Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs).
In this way, Moonlight succeeds where almost every other recent American movie flounders. How nice it is to see a movie that feels painstakingly boiled down to its essence after so many three-hour Michael Bay fests! I’ll go so far as to say that every filmmaker who doesn’t understand writing should watch this movie — as should every writer who doesn’t understand the visual power of cinema.
But much in the same way the emotional resonance of Moonlight wouldn’t work without the crackerjack script and structure, nothing about this movie would have come to life without the performances. Trevante Rhodes who plays adult Chiron gives one of the most quiet and restrained yet emotionally resonant performances I’ve ever seen — a thing of wonder. Mahershala Ali, running victory laps here after his great performance in Luke Cage, redefines the normally trite role of “drug-dealer” with his performance as Juan. It is empathetic, elegiac, and measured.
Moonlight has its faults, of course. No piece of emotionally wrenching art exists without them. I’d say in particular I was not entirely sold on the ‘twist’ of act two; it was introduced too quickly with no set-up (but that 360 pan of the bully, lurking around Chiron like a shark, was fucking great). Chiron’s mother will be argued as being another stereotypical portrayal of a crack-addicted black mother neglecting their child. However, Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright who wrote the original piece Moonlight is based on, grew up with a crack-addicted mother, so who am I too deny someone’s personal truth for being cliche? Black people’s experiences are not monolithic, and just because something could be perceived as stereotypical, does not mean it’s not someone’s personal reality. But I’m not really the best person to argue for or against this — I’m sure better examinations will come with time.
Also, I haven’t even really mentioned everything else that works so well about this movie! Cinematographer James Laxton frames some truly stunning shots. Any moment where the image of the title (taken from a cryptically intriguing monologue by Juan, how “black boys look blue in moonlight”) is realized was stunning, as was the powerful intimacy of any embrace — even a simple handshake between teenaged Chiron and his crush Kevin held a lasting effect. The scene where Juan teaches Chiron how to swim — shown in the screengrab for the trailer below — was just so surreally beautiful. Jenkins clearly took a few notes from Malick’s playbook and I am glad he did!
In short, Moonlight is an emotionally affecting and beautiful film. A moving portrait of a singular life told with grace and power. Additionally, Moonlight has given cinema a masterpiece on living as a queer black man, an existence so often forgotten by the mainstream. Still, the movie never preaches nor does it claim to say this is what life is like for every single queer black youth. This is first and foremost the story of a man named Chiron — a beautifully quiet soul who just wants to live.
ALSO: I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention Nicholas Britell’s amazing score, but I think you get it by now. Everything in this flick pretty much works. Go see it.
dir. Barry Jenkins
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre