(2016, 111 min)
Country: U. S.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Studio: Lions Gate Films
A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young
gay black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a
rough neighborhood of Miami.
At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic
meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, Moonlight is a groundbreaking piece of
cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths.
The Oscars could be a huge night for Moonlight. The film is nominated for eight awards, including
Motion Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Original Score
and Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
To describe “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’s second feature, as a movie about growing
up poor, black and gay would be accurate enough. It would also not be wrong to call
it a movie about drug abuse, mass incarceration and school violence. But those
classifications are also inadequate, so much as to be downright misleading. It would
be truer to the mood and spirit of this breathtaking film to say that it’s about
teaching a child to swim, about cooking a meal for an old friend, about the feeling of
sand on skin and the sound of waves on a darkened beach, about first kisses and
lingering regrets. Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell
Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably
personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a
poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.
The stanzas consist of three chapters in the life of Chiron, played as a wideeyed boy
by Alex Hibbert, as a brooding adolescent by Ashton Sanders and as a mostly grown
man by Trevante Rhodes. The nature and meaning of manhood is one of Mr.
Jenkins’s chief concerns. How tough are you supposed to be? How cruel? How
tender? How brave? And how are you supposed to learn?
Chiron’s initiation into such questions seems to be through fear and confusion.
We first encounter him on the run, fleeing from a bunch of other kids who want to
beat him up. Chiron is smaller than most of them — his humiliating nickname is
Little — and vulnerably different in other ways as well.
His effort to understand this difference — to work out the connection between
the schoolyard homophobia of his peers and his own confused desires — is one of the
tracks along which his episodic chronicle proceeds. Another, equally painful and
equally complicated, is Chiron’s relationship with his mother, Paula (Naomie
Harris), who slides from casual crack smoking into desperate addiction.
The drug trade around the Miami housing project where she and her son live is
controlled by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a kind of surrogate father for
Chiron. The tidy, airy house where Juan lives with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle
Monáe), becomes an oasis of domestic stability, a place with hot meals, clean sheets
and easy conversation. (Though for someone who at every stage says as few words as
he can, easy is a relative term.) That this comfort is purchased with the coin of his
mother’s misery is not lost on Chiron. “My mama does drugs?” he asked Juan at the
dinner table. “And you sell drugs?” Watching him complete the syllogism in his
head, and watching Juan’s reaction, is heartbreaking.
But there is much more to “Moonlight” — and to Juan — than this brutal double
bind might suggest. The drug dealer as default role model for fatherless youth is a
staple of hiphop mythology, pop sociology and television crime drama. But Juan,
like a figure in a Kehinde Wiley painting (and for that matter like Chiron, too, in a
later phase of his story) evokes clichés of AfricanAmerican masculinity in order to
To say that Mr. Jenkins, Mr. McCraney (and the formidable Mr. Ali) humanize
Juan is to get it exactly backward. Nobody in Juan’s situation — or in Chiron’s or
Paula’s — has ever been anything other than human. You might think that would go
without saying by now, but the radical, revelatory power of this movie suggests
otherwise. Like James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — or, to take a more
recent example, like TaNehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” — “Moonlight”
dwells on the dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, on the
existential and physical matter of black lives.
Only after I had seen “Moonlight” for a third time — and only after a European
acquaintance pointed it out to me — did I notice the almost complete absence of
white people from the movie. I don’t bring this up to suggest that the movie or my
admiration for it in any way “transcends” race. Nor do I want to damn this film, so
richly evocative of South Florida that it raises the humidity in the theater, with the
faint praise of universalism. To insist that stories about poor, oppressed or otherwise
marginal groups of people are really about everyone can be a way of denying their
specificity. The universe is far too granular and far too vast for any one of us to
comprehend, and Mr. Jenkins is far too disciplined a filmmaker to turn his
characters into symbols.
He does not generalize. He empathizes. Every moment is infused with what the
poet Hart Crane called “infinite consanguinity,” the mysterious bond that links us
with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make
visible. From first shot to last, “Moonlight” is about as beautiful a movie as you are
ever likely to see. The colors are rich and luminous. (The director of photography is
James Laxton.) The music — hiphop, R&B, astute classical selections and Nicholas
Britell’s subtle score — is both surprising and perfect.
But all this beauty — the sensuality of the camera movements, the slowness of
many of the scenes, the lovely hush that descends over the final act — is more than
just a matter of style or virtuosity. It’s integral to the movie’s argument.
In structure and tone, “Moonlight” sets itself against the earnest, austere
naturalism that has become a default setting for movies about social misery. Chiron
and Paula certainly suffer (and inflict suffering on each other), but they are liberated
from the standard indiefilm arc of abjection and redemption. Mr. McCraney’s play
is a layered and fractured collage of voices, and while Mr. Jenkins has adjusted the
shape to the linear demands of narrative filmmaking, he has retained the original’s
vital focus on Chiron’s inner life.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a screen adaptation of a stage play that has been at
once so true to the spirit of its source and so completely cinematic. Though the film,
like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” is driven more by the flow of experience than the
mechanics of plot, there are plenty of twists and reversals. Chiron’s friendship with a
schoolmate named Kevin (who grows from Jaden Piner to Jharrel Jerome to André
Holland, all excellent) evolves through a dance of camaraderie and betrayal that is
better witnessed than described. A significant death takes place in the interval
between two of the chapters and is mentioned only in passing. Prison sentences are
dealt with in the same way. Crime, violence and incarceration are facts of life, but no
life can ever be the sum of such facts.
And perhaps the most beautiful thing about “Moonlight” is its openendedness,
its resistance to easy summary or categorization. I guess I’m back where I started,
trying to decide what this movie is about. As with any original and challenging work,
the answer may take a while to emerge, but what strikes me now is less the pain of
Chiron’s circumstances than the sense that, in spite of everything, he is free. A
bullied, neglected and allbutsilent child, he grows toward an understanding of
himself and his world, and though it is agonizing to witness his progress, it is also
thrilling. To be afforded a window into another consciousness is a gift that only art
can give. To know Chiron is a privilege.
-- A.O. Scott, NYT Critics' Pick (http://www.nytimes.com/)