(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 shatter them.
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/)