'Moonlight' Is No Less Than a Masterpiece

Daring, sensitive, surprising, complex: there aren’t enough superlatives to describe 'Moonlight,' which portrays the shaping of black masculinity by following the maturation of its protagonist from child to man.

Alex Hibbert, foreground, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from the film, 'Moonlight.'
David Bornfriend, AP

Moonlight Written and directed by Barry Jenkins; with Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland

“Moonlight” is one of those rare films whose defining essence needs to be uncovered before they are discussed. In this case, the core of Barry Jenkins’ picture is that it’s a rich, daring work that is in absolute control of its materials and strikes an unusual balance between the seemingly familiar and the effectively surprising. I could offer additional praise, but there’s no need: The point is that “Moonlight” is an extraordinary movie.

This is Jenkins’ second feature (his first was “Medicine for Melancholy” in 2008). He also wrote the screenplay, based on a short play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The film’s central layer is about the shaping of black masculinity: The picture follows the maturation of its protagonist from child to man. Jenkins accomplishes what few filmmakers ever succeed at: to move out of the private story into a historical, social and cultural statement, without one element dominating or even detracting from the other.

“Moonlight” is not a didactic movie; it’s a work whose private and general essences interfuse dialectically. And if its theme – the gist of the black man, his character, life, fate and social and family destinies – has been a highly charged subject within the African-American community in recent decades, and in American society overall, Jenkins nevertheless succeeds in addressing it in a way that is never predictable.

Basically, “Moonlight” is a coming-of-age film, a familiar cinematic genre. But even as Jenkins relates to the formulas that typify the genre, he subverts each of them. This is not only because he is dealing with the maturation of a black man, whereas most films of this type have whites as their protagonists. The director’s subversions, which originate in his awareness of the power of formulas to distort the truth, is reflected as well in the film’s structure and in the development of its dramatic and emotional components, like an unsown land in the history of American cinema.

Fraught issues

The movie is set in Liberty City, a poor black neighborhood of Miami. The story, which begins in the 1980s, is divided into three chapters, each of which portrays a segment of the protagonist’s growing up. However, the movie does not begin by introducing the central character; it focuses on a secondary, albeit highly important, figure: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer. While negotiating sales, Juan passes a group of children in pursuit of a boy, who finds shelter in an abandoned house. Juan follows the boy (Alex R. Hibbert), who refuses to speak, so Juan takes him home. After the boy opens up to Juan and to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and also reveals that his name is Chiron, they return him to his mother (Naomie Harris), a drug addict and prostitute. But Juan and Teresa’s home becomes a haven for Chiron whenever his mother throws him out, either because she’s receiving clients or taking crack.

In one of the picture’s most powerful scenes, Chiron asks Juan and Teresa what the word “faggot” means – the children in school keep hurling it at him. This introduces the film’s most daring theme, socially and culturally, in the context of black manhood. “Moonlight” deals with homosexuality and sexual identity – highly fraught issues in the already fraught context of black masculinity – with originality as well as with softness and tenderness.

In the first chapter, Chiron the boy wonders about his sexual identity even though he doesn’t yet understand what it’s all about. The word “faggot” isn’t thrown into the film crudely and senselessly; it is absorbed into an identity and a consciousness that are still in the process of formation. The second chapter follows Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) as a gay adolescent, a lonely, isolated high-school student. And in the third chapter, Chiron is now a homosexual adult (played by Trevante Rhodes), a role whose magnitude of daring in the history of black society in America and black culture, as well as in terms of its cinematic depiction, is difficult to gauge.

But it’s more than daring. Jenkins’ treatment of the subject is saturated with intelligence, sensitivity, decency and, above all, supreme understanding of the way in which one’s milieu and life’s exigencies shape consciousness and identity. Chiron’s vulnerability, the loneliness he experiences, the love he covets all his life and gains only for passing moments, his biographical orbit across two decades – from a boy whose eyes are filled with the suffering of the world, to a man who carries the hallmarks of black masculinity but not without a longing for warmth and love – produce a masterly cinematic depiction of an emotionally complex subject.

The film’s structure allows it to develop in multiple directions, creating a picture of a reality that is both cohesive and disjointed, amid which it depicts the homosexual way of life in black society and culture. Characters enter and leave the movie, among them Kevin, Chiron’s only friend in high school (Jharrel Jerome and afterward André Holland as an adult), with whom he shares his first sexual experience. But his relationship with Kevin also leads him to do something that changes his life – we are constantly surprised at Jenkins’ breadth of approach in channeling the film so freely yet never losing stability and focus. The long concluding scene, in which we see white faces on the edges of the frame for a few seconds – a sight that is almost jolting after the experience of the film – is a masterpiece in its own right. Like the film as a whole, it possesses a tranquility that does not camouflage the feelings that impel it.

This seeming tranquility is one more element that attests to the skill of Jenkins’ stylistic maneuvering within a simultaneously disconnected and unified structure; James Laxton’s cinematography – which also shifts between freneticism and stability – and the music and songs that have been chosen for the movie. As for the actors: it’s not easy to decide which of the three who play Chiron does the best work. They are all marvelous, as is the entire supporting cast.

“Moonlight” has already won a number of prizes, including the Golden Globe for best drama. It has been nominated for eight Oscars and has a good chance to win Best Picture. If that happens, it will be the first time in many years that the winner will truly merit the prize.