By Ali Bush ‘19
Moonlight” (2016) is, yes a story about rough neighborhoods, drug addiction, and family instability, but it’s much more than that. A major contender for the Oscar’s Best Picture, this film is an intimate journey through a young man’s life as he struggles to understand himself and his place in his community. Describing the film as a young gay, black man’s journey into adulthood almost isn’t enough. Based on a play by Tyrell McCraney, Barry Jenkins adaptation is structured almost as Chiron’s inner monologue as he navigates his rough South Florida neighborhood and his sexuality. It is a film of small, intimate moments that add up to Chiron’s understanding of his world, the people around him, and himself.
Taking a cue from Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” (2014), the film is not so much driven by plot as it is by a string of emotional experiences. The film is divided into three acts which depict Chiron’s experiences as a small boy nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), a pensive outcast teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a young man turned tough (Trevante Rhodes). Right from the beginning of the film we are faced not only with Jenkins’s innovative camera skills, but with Chiron’s place in his community. We first see Chiron on the run, as he seems to be for most of his adolescence, from a group of boys attempting to beat him up. Surrounded by boys who casually mention their sexual adventures and create meticulously constructed facades of masculinity, Chiron is more thoughtful about the man he wants to be, but he is confused by his attraction to other men. What should a man be? Violent? Stoic? Kind? We see all of these ideas of masculinity played out around him, but he learns the most about masculinity from Juan (Mahershala Ali), the noble local drug dealer and Chiron’s surrogate father figure who teaches Chiron not only about generosity and acceptance, but also the hard truth about his mother (Naomi Harris).
A major conflict that lingers through the movie is Chiron’s mother’s fall into a desperate crack addiction. Watching Chiron learn about this at the age of 9, is a shocking and disturbing scene to a privileged viewer. But this is far from the end of Chiron’s troubles. His relationship with his classmate Kevin dominates the second half of the movie. While the boys share moments of vulnerability, embarrassment, and betrayal, they are separated but brought back together again in adulthood. In the end, nothing is exactly resolved, but we are left with a feeling that Chiron will be alright. He now understands himself, and that’s what matters.
The film’s cinematography transports you to the humid South Florida that Chiron wanders through in angst and loneliness. With neon lighting and lush scenery, James Laxton director of cinematography brings breathtaking beauty to communities that have historically been deemed “poor” and “dirty.” He lights his characters with bold colors to make them shine and radiate, proving that black bodies matter and are beautiful.
“Moonlight” tackles issues that are so important and relevant today, such as deconstructing masculinity and giving a voice to those who are so often silenced. The film does so by balancing universal human experiences of joy and loneliness with scenes that are specific to black folks. Even the most privileged audiences can relate to the peaceful loneliness of Chiron sitting on a beach at night, but audiences are then faced with tough scenes that are not often told through mainstream media, such as when Juan describes the hatred of the word “faggot” to a 9-year-old Chiron, something only queer people may encounter in their lives. Jenkins has this great talent of gracefully making this poor, black, gay man, into a relatable human, whose story is worth telling. He doesn’t tokenize the characters, dwell on their poverty, or elevate them to heroic standards. He contradicts this notion that only foreign indie film directors can capture such melancholy beauty with such little dialogue. He tells this human story with compassion and truth.
Although nearly every scene seems to have the emotional intensity that most films often fail to even capture in one scene, the most moving scene may be Chiron’s first swim.
With waves washing over the camera lens and Juan and Chiron roaring with laughter, Jenkins captures the child-like joy these characters rarely face in everyday life. As Juan holds Chiron in the water, the scene is Chiron’s baptism into self-love and understanding.
Ultimately, “Moonlight” gracefully paints a picture of a human experience that has been silenced and made invisible, and elevates this experience to high art.