In addition to this spoiler free review of Moonlight, I will also post a separate essay detailing my reflections about the film along with my assessments of a couple of mainstream reviews, some of the language used in those reviews and discuss some social media musings. I feel it’s vital that I provide thoughts that can exist outside of those echo chambers…because yes this film is that important.
Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight Makes Black Boys Look Blue. The film follows Chiron through multiple stages throughout his journey to adulthood within Liberty City, Miami. The artistic value of Moonlight excellently shines due to the skills of director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy). The cinematography by James Laxton is equally impressive. The score drives the mood and tone of the film (especially in the third act) which was composed and supervised by Nicholas Britell.
The film is told in three acts. Act I. Little, Act II. Chiron, and Act III. Black.
Chiron is successfully played by three actors corresponding to the different ages of the characters in the those acts; Alex Hibbert (I. Little), Ashton Sanders (II. Chiron) and Trevante Rhodes (III. Black).
The other supporting actors during the three acts are Chiron’s drug dealing father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan’s girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) and his “friend” and crush interest throughout the three acts, Kevin (I. Jaden Piner, II. Jharrel Jerome, II. André Holland).
In act I. Little (named because he is small stature), we’re introduced to Chiron being a shy vulnerable bullied child. As he runs and hides from bullies who hurl taunts of “faggot”, Juan comes to his aid while the tight mouthed Little is unsure of Juan’s intentions. Juan’s home becomes a safe place for Little to find reprieve. Juan’s girlfriend Theresa is presented as a much needed surrogate mother figure for Little due to his spiraling relationship with his own mother due to her increasing addictions.
The fatherless Little is reluctant to open up to Juan but after gaining his trust, Juan becomes a nurturer and caring male figure.
One of the many cinematic high lights of the film is when Juan takes Little to the beach. Via slight split horizontal screen, we witness Juan showing Chiron how to float in the water. The camera is right below the water’s surface while Juan holds Little during his attempts to relax and float. We see the transition from Little’s uneasiness to him letting his guard down. Little begins to enjoy himself and be a kid. In this moment, he is carefree.
In act two we now see Chiron as a tall lanky teenager. Not much has changed with Chiron. He still has a very dysfunctional relationship with his now crack-cocaine addicted mother. Theresa’s (no longer Juan’s) house is still a safe place, even though Chiron doesn’t want to impose. Chiron still has a defeatist appearance of a shy introverted boy. He doesn’t hold his head up. His shoulders look wilted and most of all his face (primarily his mouth and lips) are clasp tight like a steal trap. His voice is muted which contributes to his preservation.
What has changed is the ramped-up torment from his neighborhood bullies. Because they are now teenagers, the testosterone flood gates have opened and so have their aggressions. Act two is clearly the stand out of the three acts. Actor Ashton Sanders as Chiron seems like the definitive out of the three. We see and feel the vulnerability, the seeking of something meaningful and the torment of a sometimes homeless Chiron. In addition to Theresa, his only other solace is his childhood associate Kevin (played by another acting stand out, Jharrel Jerome) who also took a nurturing approach to Chiron in the first act. Kevin is not only sexually active, he’s confident, more popular and comes off as if he can blend or fit in with any of the social circles in high school. Kevin plays an integral part in Chiron’s life, forcing an unforeseen turn that ends up transforming Chiron.
In act three we see Chiron, who now goes by Black (nickname given to him by Kevin). Black may be in his late 20’s or early 30’s. Black has now morph into a resemblance of Juan. He sells drugs (trappin’) and is physically muscular in stature and build. Even though I feel the third act is the weakest out of the three, that doesn’t mean it’s still not as captivating and entertaining.
The crux of the third act is “the diner scene”. The verbal and non-verbal cues between Black and Kevin are a joy to watch but there is still much pain there between the intimacies. Just as with the previous two acts; Black is still introverted regardless if his physical presence demands attention. He is now an extremely guarded man in a sexual identity crisis. This actually creates some tension and pressure between Black and Kevin.
One of the problems I had with the film is that you really can’t pin point Chiron’s age during the three acts. It’s really not that important during the first two acts but during the third, I feel it becomes sort of a hindrance.
In the first act Little appears to be around 8 to 10 years of age; still in elementary school but maybe on the cusp of middle school. In act two, we know Chiron is a teenager, most likely a sophomore in high school, around 15-16 years old. In act three, I feel the viewer really can’t tell how old Black, is. This time gap and Black’s current questionable age makes you feel like you have missed out on a large chuck of relevant story that is not as simple to overlook with the clues given. Personally I couldn’t tell if Black (and Kevin) are in their late 20’s or 30’s. Kevin looks older than Black in the third act and its possible he may have been an upper class-men (during high school) in the second act, meaning he’s always been older.
Again, this made me feel like I don’t really know anything about the more ‘current’ Chiron a.k.a. Black. In the words of Kevin, “Who is you Chiron?” Due to these lapses in time, it forces the viewer to think and draw certain assumptions or conclusion to fill in the gaps between the acts of the film that may not be correct.
Many reviews have called this film a “masterpiece”. Artistically speaking, the film does look phenomenal. With it’s few falters, I did feel after the third act a sense of incompletion. I felt this tale could have possibly been better told in flash-back form. Maybe then I would have felt I knew more about the present day Chiron (Black). Or maybe this would have meant I wouldn’t have known more about Little or teenage Chiron, I don’t know but I do feel something is missing in the film’s totality.
None of this however needs to detract from importance of this film and why it’s extremely significant to the psychology and observation of Black males. This film provides feelings and emotions that is not readily seen or heard from many troubled black boys. There are plenty of depictions on the big and small screen showing bullying (which is a common theme) but the specificity that is Moonlight, exists on its own.
Moonlight always has strife and conflict under the surface which is at times accentuated with frantic compelling cinematography.
I liked how much of the story is told without using words but with body language and facial expressions. Again a hat tip to director Barry Jenkins. I also like how at times the color palette of blues and purples that is reflected on the film poster and stated by Juan’s words, “in moonlight black boys look blue”, is seen at points throughout the film.
With all its stellar reviews and accolades, make no mistake this is a Black – coming of age – male – sexuality questioning – story. All of the actors (no really…every last one of them; even the childhood and teenage bullies like actor Patrick Decile) really did do an outstanding job, with the stand outs for me being Ashton Sanders and Naomie Harris.
I want to say this is an equivalent to a more coming of age gritty Brokeback Mountain…but a part of me can’t because this film is really is unique. There really isn’t any other mainstream widely released film to compare this to.
Nonetheless, the themes are universal; looking for meaningful connections, understanding and love. Regardless of ideologies, ethnicities, gender or sexuality this is something we all crave at points in our lives.
This is more than just an important film; it’s well overdue but still right on time. Make no mistakes, even with its few shortcomings, this poetic film really is a must see and possibly an instant classic.