A wondrous piece of filmmaking, Moonlight is undoubtedly the most important film of the year for the LGBTQ and African-American communities at the center of its narrative – yet Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature holds the power to also inspire anyone who feels crashed by a society that forces us into prejudice-fueled little boxes defining every single facet of our lives.
Based on Tarell McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, this haunting adaptation for the screen is one of those rare films that manage to tap into human emotion so genuinely and uncompromisingly that you can’t help but feel enthralled, even if you don’t belong to any of the minorities portrayed.
LGBTQ-themed cinema should aspire to tell stories that feel universal and can actually further the challenging path towards equality. The Florida-native filmmaker, has achieved such delicate task by crafting an incredibly raw, soul-searching journey, so deeply moving and affecting that by the time the evocative final image fades to black we feel a punch in the guts and a calming sense of relief all at the same time.
Moonlight is the harrowing story of a young black gay man raised by a single mother with a drug addiction in a rough neighbourhood of Miami, told across three chapters symbolically titled: Little, Chiron and Black – the three names our protagonist is identified with as he grows from child into teenager and eventually into fully fledged adult.
In the opening sequence we meet scrawny child Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), which is our protagonist’s actual name, as he runs away from a bunch of bullies who call him “Little”. After taking shelter in a crack den, he’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local drug kingpin, who comforts the frightened and wary child with his charm and gentlemanly ways. However, only Juan’s maternal girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) manages to breach the boy’s wall of silence.
Chiron’s shut down personality is no surprise – on a daily basis he has to endure bullying and then come home to a junkie mother (a raw, intense Naomie Harris) whose verbal and psychological abuses hurt as much as (or even more than) the physical ones. When the woman finds out Juan has taken Chiron under his wing and Teresa is basically playing surrogate mother, tension arises, especially since the man sells her crack yet dares preaching about how to raise her child.
Growing up like an outcast, teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) finds some solace in the midst of this bleakness with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the closest thing to a friend he’s ever had since tender age. Now in high school though, whilst our protagonist remains the favourite prey of bullies, Kevin manages to get by thanks to his wannabe play-it-cool-and-tough act. When unexpected events complicate the friendship between the two boys, Chiron’s inner turmoil becomes an inevitable moment of terrifying self-awareness.
As we flash forward to adult Chiron aka Black – the nickname Kevin actually coined for him – it’s immediately evident how our protagonist may have come of age and grown into an intimidatingly buff man (played by an outstanding Trevante Rhodes) but inside he’s still a tormented soul in need of catharsis. When adult Kevin (a brilliantly nuanced André Holland) reappears in his life for the first time since those dramatic high school days, it is time for Chiron to finally face his demons once and for all.
The three actors playing the character at his various ages simply amaze for how they all brilliantly capture Chiron’s shut down personality with the same level of intensity and pain. That’s also a testament to the director’s ability to create a strong sense of continuity through the different periods and yet convey the distinct feel that time has indeed passed, in spite of our hero remaining trapped within the ever more hardened shell of his psycho-emotional distress.
We live in a world where the perception of masculinity and of sexuality are exacerbated to the point of becoming overwrought with the preoccupation of fitting into those preconceived boxes. The filmmakers take all those preconceptions and subvert them entirely, creating a unique piece of filmmaking destined to ignite debates and hopefully change hearts and minds.
Moonlight is one of those films that play out like a huge build up towards an emotionally taut final act. Some will find the climax too understated but that’s exactly what makes it feel real and powerful, just like the rest of the story. In the wake of what’s happening in America with the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the general sociopolitical turmoil plus with homophobia still poisoning societies all around the world, in spite of the progress, this couldn’t be a more timely and necessary film.