A gay man’s journey from a deprived childhood through rage and towards self-realisation is a moving, mysterious dance to the music of time
The combination of artistry and emotional directness in this film is overwhelming. Barry Jenkins writes and directs, having adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Moonlight is about a young African American man and his coming of age, presented as three stages in his life, like the panels of a triptych. The film has power and generosity, giving such full access to his thoughts and feelings that it’s as if you are getting them delivered intravenously. It is the kind of film that leaves you feeling somehow mentally smarter and physically lighter.
Love, sex, survival, mothers and father figures are its themes, the last one foregrounded by the poignant absence of the fathers themselves. Moonlight put me in mind of John Singleton, Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett, but also Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story; the structure even had me thinking about Tolstoy’s trilogy: Childhood, Boyhood and Youth. There is an array of visually ravishing dream sequences, epiphanic surges, hallucinatory closeups, lush swathes of music. Jenkins is not shy of breaking out Mozart’s Laudate Dominumover a woozy, wordless scene of kids playing.
The protagonist comes to be named Black: macho, gym-built, with gold teeth; a man of few words. He got out of jail to start a new life far from his Miami home town, ending up in Atlanta, Georgia, “trapping” – that is, dealing on street corners. But Black has a secret: something he keeps hidden from other people, and maybe even himself. He is gay. How did he get here?
Jenkins takes us through the scenes of his life: as a kid he is called Little (Alex Hibbert), always getting picked on, worried about his drug-addicted mom, Paula (Naomie Harris). As a teen, he is known by his given name Chiron. Now he is played by Ashton Sanders, and he is recognisably the same kid, only a bit older, slight, spindly, gawky, with a watchful silence that is a symptom of and a defensive strategy against the vicious bullying he endures from Terrel (Patrick Decile), a guy who has a malicious sixth sense for Chiron’s growing relationship with classmate Kevin (played by Jaden Piner as a kid and Jharrel Jerome as a teen). Finally, as a result of rage, self-hate and jail time, Chiron bulks up, grows new layers of muscle and becomes unrecognisable in his last evolutionary stage of development: reinventing himself as Black (Trevante Rhodes). Then he gets a phone call from his past: Kevin (André Holland), is now out of prison himself, an absent father, working as a chef.
The narrative arc is both initiated and held together by a wonderfully charismatic performance from an actor who appears only in the first act: it is Mahershala Ali, playing Juan, the Miami drug-baron with a kindly, fatherly side who protects Little when he sees him getting chased by other kids. Juan lets Little stay at his place occasionally, looks out for him; he gives him a swimming lesson which becomes a kind of baptism. Juan provides food, comfort, support, but also drugs. He is a very questionable caregiver and role model, with an inexpressibly painful and ironic relationship with Little and his mom, and Jenkins shows how Black’s own conflicted destiny follows the example laid down long ago by Juan.
The casting of three different actors is a visible part of the film’s theatrical inheritance: a formally stylised effect, with each new incarnation a jolt, and obviously different from the incremental, almost geological changes achieved in Richard Linklater’s real-time movie Boyhood. But it is not there to distance you. Interestingly, Naomie Harris’s performance is spread out over the movie’s running time and the changes in her character’s appearance are subtler and more naturalistic: she deteriorates with drug use but then achieves a kind of stability and dignity as an older woman. It is a great performance.
Moonlight is moving and mysterious: a dance to the music of time, in its way. But it also shows that the three stages can be considered in parallel, as well as in sequence: Little/Chiron/Black is a palimpsest of identities. Moonlight is a film about masculinity, the wounds and crises of which are the same for all sexualities, but conditioned by the background weather of race and class. “I cry so much sometimes I might turn to drops,” confesses Chiron to Kevin, and, as for so many men, growing up for him is the search for ways to cauterise sadness, to anaesthetise it with rage. Moonlight finds a way to convert it into happiness.