As a writer, sometimes a work of art, whether it’s music, a movie, play or painting, compels you to write in an inevitably futile effort to do it justice. Moonlight, directed and written by Barry Jenkins, is such a film.
It’s a work primarily concerned with transcending the past while being true to oneself and the social structures that stand in the way, particularly for a gay African-American from a broken home.
The film follows Chiron (pronounced shy-rone) through three phases of his life, played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, respectively.
We first meet him as a child, or “Little”, as he’s then known, through the eyes of Juan, played by Mahershala Ali. You may recognize him from Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage.
After finding Little hiding out in a shed on his property, Juan takes him under his wing, serving as a father figure in the absence of his biological father. The audience discovers soon after that Juan is a crack dealer who sells to Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and her boyfriend.
Juan also gives the boy money out of apparent guilt and pity for feeding his mother’s addiction. He’s giving back to Little what he takes from his mother.
Chiron’s mother is emotionally abusive, calling her son a “faggot” in a scene that is muted, emphasizing the hurtfulness of the slur. The audience literally has to read her lips to figure out what she’s saying.
In the next scene, Little asks Juan what that word means, to which he responds that it’s a homophobic slur. “You can be gay, but don’t let anyone call you no faggot,” Juan says, providing Little with the emotional support and comfort his mother should be giving.
In the first part, Little appears at Juan’s house whenever he is distressed by his situation at home.
“There are black people all over the world and we need to stick together,” he advises Chiron. The rest of the film depicts the exact opposite, providing a glimpse into the internal struggles of the black community.
In the second act, we see Chiron, whose sexual orientation at this point is known throughout the community and his high school, bullied severely by fellow African-Americans. The bullies pressure Kevin (Andre Holland), Chiron’s secret lover, to beat him to a bloody pulp. Not wanting them to suspect that he too is gay, Kevin obliges.
Chiron doesn’t want to be a snitch on his lover, so he declines to press charges, taking matters into his own hands. In one of the film’s more difficult scenes to watch, he barges into school and breaks a chair over the lead bully’s head, for which he’s sent to juvenile detention.
When he emerges in the third act, Chiron has reinvented himself, starting a new life in Atlanta. He’s come full circle as a drug dealer referred to as “Black”. He’s now a symbol of rugged, heterosexual masculinity. He’s muscular and dresses with grills and a gold chain. He also has a crown on the dashboard of his car, as Juan did, from which he blares gangsta rap.
Without giving too much away, he’s reunited with Kevin, telling him “I’m trapped,” which is an apt summation of the film’s major overarching theme.
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Water is a particularly potent symbol in Moonlight. Juan teaches Little to swim near the film’s beginning, solidifying his fatherly status.
More importantly, it’s where Chiron goes in the second act to escape his crack-addicted mother’s continual abuse, which now includes pestering him for money, where he smokes his first blunt and has his first homosexual experience with Kevin. We also see Chiron dunk his head in ice water as a symbol of exasperation, both after Kevin beats him up and after he’s arrested for his vigilante justice.
The film’s title is also symbolic in this sense. Just as moonlight reflects on the water, so too does the past reflect on the present and future. Moonlight also provides light in darkness, which is represented by Black’s reunion with Kevin in the third act.
Rich in symbolism and with excellent performances all around, Moonlight may very well be the best film I saw in 2016. It provides a powerful contrast to Marvel and Star Wars’ highly profitable, and I’ll concede often entertaining, explosion porn.