No one is any one thing. Our identities have history, they are shaped by what is always inside us and how we react to external influences, two storms constantly colliding in our hearts and minds as we find and mold ourselves throughout our lives. In Moonlight we take that journey with Chiron, and it is a dynamic, beautiful, frustrating, achingly bittersweet arc. It is a black film that celebrates blackness by being thoroughly and dynamically black. It is a film about a man’s coming to terms with his sexuality and how it informs his masculinity in nuanced, layered ways. It is a human film, filled with complicated joy, paralyzing pain, and all the in-between. It is a remarkable coming of age film that evokes the classic imagery and sound of foreign arthouse works, but contextualizes those familiar notes in American blackness. The film brings to life a black experience that is allowed to be nuanced, human, and tenderly sexual. Barry Jenkins lifts each character up in empathy and actualization; even when it utilizes familiar archetypes they are contextualized in the entirety of Chiron’s experience magnificently. Moonlight is a stunning work.
The film is about Chiron, and its follows three different points in his life. Once when he is somewhere between 8-10 (played by Alex Hibbert), once where he is around 16 (played by Ashton Sanders), and then again when he’s in his mid-twenties (played as an adult by Trevante Rhodes). We’re introduced to him at his most vulnerable. He is bullied, chased by neighborhood kids until he escapes them by hiding himself in a vacant apartment turned drug den. He is found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and though Juan tries to connect with him, Chiron is reluctant to let out a word. Juan is possibly the first person in Chiron’s life to treat him with any real care. His father isn’t around and his mother’s dependency on drugs doesn’t allow her to be the caregiver Chiron needs. Juan is a good-hearted father figure, he brings Chiron into his home and introduces him to his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). Chiron is fed and cared for, then returns to his mother (Naomi Harris), but his relationship with Juan and Teresa continues. Juan teaches him how to swim, talks to him about identity, and answers his hard life questions honestly. Sometimes heartbreakingly. Meanwhile, the kids at school do not stop picking on Chiron, but one reaches out. Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner) advises Chiron to show his tormentors that he isn’t “soft”. They wrestle, joke, and laugh. The moments we see with these kids are small, but they are full. The film is lush with these small stories, filmed and structured in a way that recalls Chiron’s snapshots of memories the way we often think back on what we’ve been through, some moments obviously impactful, others seemingly small but at the same time significant, stuck in our minds for a reason. Those subtle, restrained moments inform so much, like one afternoon when Chiron comes home to find his mother absent. He draws his own bath, filling the tub halfway before bringing a pot of water to a boil and pouring it into the tub. He sits in the water, alone, but with connections beyond his broken household for the first time.
This first chapter introduces us to the most important people in Chiron’s life, and they remain part of him throughout the rest of the film. Those relationships grow naturally, and are not always easy. We next pick up with Chiron as a teenager. He and Kevin (now played with vibrant humor by Jharrel Jerome) connect on a deeper level, but there’s always something in between. Moonlight is always showing us a Chiron caught in the murkiness of who he is and who he wants to be, what he has and what he wants, often hard for him to define. No matter how concrete or how vague his desires, there’s always something in the way. His mother’s addiction, a school bully, the drawings of a child. These are the external factors that weigh on Chiron and shape his identity. His reactions inform who he turns into, and it is not always fair. He is severely beaten by kids at his high school, and when lashing back at his oppressors, ends up being the one pushed into the back of a police car.
Chiron struggles, yes, but again this is a dynamic film that, like Chiron, is never one thing. This is a story about self love, specifically black love. Teresa tells a withdrawn Chiron, almost unable to ever raise his head high, always staring into his lap, “You know my rule. It’s all love and pride in this house”. One of Chiron’s other nicknames, given to him as a teenager by Kevin, is Black. Now in his twenties, Chiron has become an archetypical expression of black masculinity. He is no longer scrawny, he has put on taut muscles, abs lovingly framed as a smooth, rippling force on his stomach. He wears gold plates on his teeth and rides low to deep, booming hip hop. Now played by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron is near unrecognizable from the boy we met an hour and a half ago. He is showing everyone that he is not “soft”. Ultimately though, his past comes around, and peeking out through Rhodes’ performance is the Chiron of old, the Chiron who admitted that he cries all the time. The Chiron who was so often confused and just trying his best to stay afloat among a sea of emotion. Rhodes’ longing stares, the way he looks at someone he cares about, the way we see him carefully consider what he’s about to say as someone who has always had such difficulty expressing himself before, it is a remarkable, stellar performance. He meets his mother in rehab in an absolute masterclass between two exceptional performers. They confront what they could not be to each other before, both letting tears roll down their cheeks, struggling to meet eyes. The sequence is filmed exquisitely: even when Chiron reaches out to wipe the tear from his mother’s eye, it is after she’s taken a drag on a cigarette, and the smoke flows between them, a ghostly reminder of what weighs on them, what has always been between them, an echo of what will always be a part of their bond.
Moonlight is Barry Jenkins’ second film (his debut, Medicine for Melancholy, is worth seeing). It is a stylistic foray into something new, playing with time and structure in a way that’s Linklater-esque, and much like the Everybody Wants Some!! director, the connection between Jenkins and his characters is palpable. The cinematography lifts everyone with such care and beauty, a tenderness that bleeds from the screen, enveloping us within the lush blues and neon pinks of the exquisitely composed images. On the beach one night, Jenkins emphasizes Kevin’s hand running through the sand after his and Chiron’s first sexual encounter, and then brings that hand to attention again later when Kevin drops Chiron off. He reaches out that hand for Chiron to take, and Chiron hesitates. Not because he’s put off, but because he’s never had a connection like this before. It is one of the film’s most poignant moments when the hands meet again. The film is so deeply itself, so lovingly Chiron’s story, but it is never apologetic, never easy. It allows Chiron’s story to be one of blackness and one of queerness, but knows that those things are not the entirety of him. Important parts of him, yes. But this is not a film about the fight for those things on a broad scale, like a Milk or 12 Years a Slave. It is so deeply personal, so much about how those aspects of identity manifest in one person alongside so many others facets of being, and then how interconnected that is with the entirety of the human experience. By being so specific on Chiron, by celebrating his story so empathetically, Moonlight becomes a triumph on a massive scale from the first second of its runtime. Jenkins lets us know what this film is right away: the first words we hear in the film are sung, playing through Juan’s car stereo before a single frame is even shown. The film’s thesis statement comes through in Boris Gardner’s most famous song, and the film immerses itself in that message and extends that love for the whole of its experience. We are better for it.