Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a film that finds universality through its specificity and defies expectations at every turn. It tells the story of a young, black, gay man in Miami at three points in his life, split into three distinctive chapters. Each part plays out like a satisfying short film of its own but together they form one stunning whole; an intimate, poetic exploration of identity, masculinity, race and sexuality that is unmistakably personal and all the more powerful for it.
The first chapter focuses on Chiron – or Little, as he is known at the time – as a child, played by Alex Hibbert. He’s picked on for his size and an encounter with some bullies sends him running for cover in an abandoned crack den. Here he’s discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind-hearted drug dealer who becomes a father figure for Little. In another film, Juan would have had an ulterior motive, looking to turn Little into a corner boy but there’s nothing but genuine concern here. He and his girlfriend Teresa ( Janelle Monae) look after Little, providing a safe haven away from his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and even discussing sexuality with Little for presumably the first time.
The film then finds Chiron in high school, now deeply self-conscious teen played by Ashton Sanders. He’s quiet and awkward, and a perfect target for the bullies who continually harass him with name-calling and physical threats. The only kid who is friendly to him is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who is facing similar identity issues but rather than retreat into himself like Chiron, Kevin overcompensates with swagger and bravado. Their friendship eventually leads to two incidents that profoundly affect the trajectory of Chiron’s life, informing the man he is in the film’s third chapter, where Chiron is transformed into Black, a hulking drug dealer played by Trevante Rhodes.
Rhodes is physically very different to the diminutive Hibbert and the gangly Sanders, but all three actors capture the same wounded sadness in their eyes. By this point in life, Black has learned to be ‘hard’, portraying a more obvious image of masculinity and external toughness. He’s covered in tattoos, sports gold fronts and cruises around Atlanta in a Cadillac like every thug stereotype you’ve ever seen. But beneath that exterior, Black is still the same vulnerable kid with a well of emotion that he won’t let himself access. Rhodes brilliantly portrays that conflict, allowing his deep sadness and vulnerability to penetrate the intimidating gangster façade. All of the actors here are exceptional but Rhodes’ performance is the most powerful, with the caveat that Hibbert and Sanders so perfectly laid the groundwork for him.
Written by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – whose unproduced play provided the source material – Moonlight is a deeply humane and empathetic film. It presents a setting and characters that we think we know all about but goes in a different direction at every opportunity. Regardless of whether characters here are drug dealers like Juan – and, eventually, Chiron – or crack addicts, like Chiron’s mother, Jenkins sees the humanity in them and presents them as people, not stereotypes. Though the world that Juan inhabits is rife with violence and suffering, which he is unquestionably a part of, Jenkins isn’t interested in that. He cares more about Juan as a person and the kindness and warmth he shows Chiron and the impact that has on him, which is felt across the rest of the film.
Visually, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture a look that’s at odds with the film’s rough, urban setting, soaking its earlier scenes in stark sunlight that gives way to the rich blues of night. Throughout the first two acts, the sea is a constant presence and provides the backdrop for two crucial scenes: first, Juan performs something of a symbolic baptism on Little in the water as the sun glistens off the lapping waves; later, a teenage Chiron has his first sexual encounter – a hushed and tentative fumble on the moonlit beach. The third act takes a visual swerve, introducing sumptuous reds and blues as the plot reintroduces Kevin, now played by Andre Holland. Over the course of an achingly romantic and almost real-time meeting, Chiron’s guard completely drops and he has what seems like the first honest conversation of his life.
Though Jenkins and his actors avoid obvious histrionics, it’s devastating to see Chiron finally let out even just an ounce of what he has kept bottled up for so long. In this moment, Chiron may not have finally found himself but for the first time, it seems like there’s real hope for him. It’s the perfect note to close out such a delicate film that holds so much raw emotion. Just as Moonlight’s characters are difficult to pigeon-hole, so too is the film: its subject matter suggests it could be an ‘issue movie’ or ‘Oscar bait’ but it’s far more thoughtful and artful than those labels suggest. The story might be specific but the central themes of identity and discovering yourself are universal, and Jenkins explores them with a sensitivity and lightness of touch that belies the immense power of this instant classic.