FILM REVIEW: MOONLIGHT (2016) DIR. BARRY JENKINS
Moonlight was described to me as one of the most beautiful films she had ever seen by one of my oldest and dearest friends, an elegant white southern girl of extremely refined and sophisticated taste who adores opera, ballet, Masterpiece Theatre and Shakespeare. While I watched, I kept thinking that there must be another Moonlight by Noel Coward or someone of that ilk, that this could not be that movie. I was so wrong.
That it takes place in the gritty mean streets of Miami’s Liberty City, a poor black neighborhood plagued by drugs, prostitution, gang violence and unemployment and finds a way to avoid stereotypes and tell a nuanced story of fully realized characters who can be identified with by audiences who have little or no knowledge of what that life is like, is something of a miracle. It goes beyond issues of basic survival to the deeper human yearning to know and be known completely by another person.
The time is the 1960’s (war on drugs), and follows the trajectory of Chiron (Alex Hibbert), who we meet as a shy quiet adolescent being bullied by some fearsome older boys. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is pretty fearsome himself, but respected in the neighborhood since he also happens to control the drug business. Juan becomes a surrogate father figure to the vulnerable boy whose single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is more concerned with scoring drugs and sex than mothering. Ironically, it is Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) who provide a stable safe haven for Chiron when things are too chaotic and uncomfortable at home. Life is pretty grim for the boy known as “Little”.
As he becomes a teenager, “Black” as he is later known (Ashton Sanders), things don’t get any better. He is a skinny, sensitive kid who seems to only have one friend, Kevin, and he is still being taunted, pushed around and called a “f*ggot” by the tougher boys. It is in a beautiful scene on the beach at night that he has his first and only moment of intimacy and it is with Kevin. It is an achingly sweet moment delicately revealed. When, the beaten-down Chiron, finally stands up for himself and retaliates against his tormentor he is arrested and sent off to juvenile detention.
Part three jumps ahead ten years to Chiron, the man (Trevante Rhodes), now a formidable muscular, prison-schooled dude who has become, not surprisingly, a successful drug dealer in Atlanta. Prison will do that for you. This section reconciles Chiron and his recovered mother and reunites Chiron with Kevin for a bittersweet recapturing of that which they shared from their past, though their lives have diverged widely. It is a stunningly moving moment. You will feel it viscerally.
The film is more than the sum of its parts. The sense of what it means to inhabit a black body in a world which often devalues and fears it, is so searingly and intelligently expressed because of it’s literary origins. Based on the play “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the language is lyrical and beautiful and perfectly matched by James Laxton’s richly textured cinematography and poetic still moments, as well as the music which includes R & B, classical and hip-hop in unusual juxtapositions. It is all of a piece and a truly beautifully crafted work of art. It haunts me still.