In Barry Jenkins’ masterful film Moonlight, the coming of age of a gay, black man is compressed down into a mere 111 minutes, distilled for your viewing pleasure.
Nearly split into three sections – revealing the structure of the play upon which it is based, Tarell McCrary’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – we follow Chiron, first as a child taken under the wing of a drug dealer, then as a teenager mercilessly bullied at school, and finally as a young man revisiting figures from his past. The result, of seeing a life sped up, allows us to examine the patterns that establish themselves in people’s lives, and the cycles that the characters seem unable to escape.
We first see Little, as he is known, running from a group of bullies, Jenkins’ camera trailing him in a tight, anxiety-inducing close-up. Taking refuge in an abandoned flop den, Little comes across a used syringe – the full impact of the discovery is only revealed later, when we learn that his mother is a drug addict – and is eventually found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer. We were first introduced to Juan at the start of the film, in a dizzying tracking shot that immediately establishes him as a known figure in the neighbourhood – Liberty City, Miami – keeping its inhabitants supplied with crack cocaine.
From the off, Jenkins is interested in challenging our conventional ideas about how a drug dealer should act: Juan and girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monaé) take Chiron under their wings; when Chiron asks if he is a ‘faggot’, Juan replies “you can be gay…but you don’t have to let anyone call you a faggot”. Juan takes Little to the beach, teaching him how to swim in a scene that is more-than-reminiscent of a baptism; Jenkins’ camera bobs up and down beautifully in the warm Pacific waters. Chiron will return to this beach in the next two acts, first literally, when he runs into Kevin and desire spills over into action; and later only figuratively, as the two men re-explore that night in their memories.
But while Juan may want to provide some kind of father figure to Chiron, the fact that he supplies the drugs that turn Chiron’s mother into a monster means he will never be able to – a fact revealed in a crushing scene at the end of Act I. This sees the end of Juan’s role in the film, but he echoes throughout Moonlight, with the older Chiron modelling himself on Juan, right down to the small crown on his car’s dashboard.
Putting on Juan’s appearance is like a mantle of armour for Chiron, one that leaves him invulnerable, yet constrained. Just as in the second act, in which violence begets violence, Chiron seems unable to escape the societal and familial influences that shape him.
What is striking about Jenkins’ and McCroney’s script is the volume of silence contained delicately within it, like a delicate skein of words surrounding a core of emptiness; at times, Moonlight plays like a silent film, a point underscored by the scenes in which the sound cuts out, in favour of Nichola Britwell’s haunting, string-heavy score. The compelling performances of the three actors playing the young, teenage, and adult Chirons – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevonte Rhodes, respectively – underscore this idea, all simmering with intense, quiet physicality. All seem to be judging each line carefully, deciding whether breaking through the isolation is worth the vulnerability it will bring; all too often they choose to remain silent, making certain lines all the more powerful, such as teenage Chiron’s heart-breaking confession that “I cry so much sometimes I think one day I’m gonna just turn into drops”. Hibbot’s performance, which is the most mute of the three, is the most compelling; his presence on the screen is hypnotic, and his unflinching gaze completely magnetic.
This wordless performance directly contrasts with Naomi Harris’ role as Chiron’s mother. We follow her too, through a journey from crack-addict to tentative rehab inpatient, in a narrative that runs parallel to Chiron’s; the two are tied together with shared trauma. By turns comforting and intimidating, Harris is able to effortlessly ricochet between moods in the blink of an eye; in one terrifying scene she asks teenage Chiron to let her into their apartment, staring straight down Jenkins’ lens like a woman possessed. The fact that she filmed the entirety of her scene over only three days just adds to the tremendous achievement.
Jenkins has spoken about his admiration of the films of Wong Kar-Wai, and in many ways Moonlight’s closest relative is Kar-Wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love. Both feature characters conveying their inner struggles in hushed tones, and also revel in the sheer sensual beauty of cinema – in Moonlight’s case this is achieved with James Laxton’s incredible cinematography, which explores the bewitching effect of lights: moonlight, neon lights, streetlights. In Moonlight, like In the Mood for Love, key scenes take place in a diner – this time soundtracked by Barbara Lewis’ haunting Hello Stranger rather than Nat King Cole’s Quizas, Quizas, Quizas – which acts as a third space, between private and public, in which connections are tentatively tested.
To call Moonlight a ‘universal film’ is to do it a disservice, to downplay its ensconcement in particular cultural contexts, to sand it down to a bland message on ‘masculinity’, as if a single word can contain the film’s multitudes. It is a film about pain and love, yes – although perhaps intimacy is a better term than love – but it explores these emotions through the specific lenses of growing up gay, black, and poor. Flattening this out in pursuit of universality is to ignore the particular features of the film’s conception: Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in the Liberty Square housing project; both had mothers addicted to crack; both carry the weight of this experience in their life and work. Moonlight does not contain any universal truth about the nature of life, but rather particular truths, about particular lives – it is all the more powerful for it.