During the first act of Barry Jenkins’ newest film, we listen to a story about a woman describing the effect of moonlight on black skin. Word has it she said that in the moonlight black skin looked blue. It’s a beautiful story, and a lovely idea: that under the right set of circumstances, any one person can be physically transformed. It gives the impression that all it takes is a little bit of moonlight, and we can be someone entirely different…someone stronger, maybe even better.
All that moonlight though cannot do a thing about who we are inside, and the slow transformation of that person can be the toughest thing we ever face in our lives.
MOONLIGHT is the story of one boy told in three acts.
Act One finds the lad about ten years old living in Florida.
Dubbed “Little” by most around him, the boy (Alex Hibbert) opens our story by running from bullies and hiding out in an abandoned building. It’s there that he is found by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Sensing that the boy could use safe harbour, Juan brings him home to meet his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). With food in his belly and friendly faces around him, Little starts to come out of his shell a bit.
All of that comes to a fast end when he’s brought home the next day, and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) takes him to task for not coming home.
While Juan and Teresa continue to keep a close eye on Little, most others around him seem determined to make his life difficult. His mother abuses drugs when she should be looking out for her son, and most of his schoolmates physically and emotionally bully Little at every turn. In the face of this, one friend named Kevin steps up, and Juan becomes a surrogate father.
Act Two picks up seven years later.
“Little” now goes by his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Juan is dead. His mother has fallen even further off the wagon, prompting him to spend even more time at Teresa’s house.
Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still a good friend, which provides a great deal of comfort since his high school peer group seems to be picking on him more and more with continual allusions to his perceived homosexuality.
The allusions turn out to be well-perceived though, when after a particularly trying day, Chiron goes to Kevin’s home, and the two have a sexual encounter on the beach. The respite is short-lived though, as a high school bully convinces Kevin to partake in a hazing ritual that involves beating-up Chiron.
Chiron refrains from incriminating his dear friend, but the next day comes back to school and violently retaliates against the bully that instigated the fight. Chiron is promptly arrested.
Act Three comes at least ten years after.
Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) now goes by “Black” – Kevin’s nickname for him. Now in Atlanta, Black is a hardened adult drug dealer with no visible traces of the boy everyone had homosexual suspicions about.
One night, Black gets an unexpected phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland), expressing that he happened to be thinking about his old friend and wanted to touch base. Kevin is now a cook at a Florida diner and happened to hear a song that reminded him of days gone by.
The conversation gets Black into his car and on the road to Florida, to see his old friend once more, and reflect on his past.
At the centre of MOONLIGHT is the core question of “who is you?”. It’s not an original theme, or one that hasn’t been explored on-camera before, and yet as we watch Chiron work out his own answer to the question, we recall thinking about it for the first time ourselves. Perhaps it’s something we realized early in life, or perhaps it’s something we are still struggling with. What this film wants us to understand is that how we identify might not align with perceptions or expectations. That can be a good thing (though sometimes it isn’t), but we should strive for understanding of ourselves…because nobody else will do it for us.
Into this question of identity in MOONLIGHT strides perceptions around masculinity, which means something very specific for men of colour. The sad reality is that there are still whole swaths of people who see a homosexual as lesser, especially a homosexual man. In the face of that, a film where a drug dealer tells a boy to be himself is beautiful. A film where a friend is able to recognize something in another friend and help him understand it is beautiful. And a film where one man can lovingly cook a meal for another man is a beautiful thing.
The beauty of them – and the power that comes with that beauty – is undeniable. They demonstrate that true masculinity comes by way of emotional honesty. It comes from being unafraid to express true love when it is felt, and never to judge any person for following their heart. That, after all, is where our identity is forged. It’s not in our physiology, or our sexual wants; but in our hearts…where we see most clearly, and are affected most deeply.
No matter the sexual preference, a real man listens to his heart when it comes time to stand up and be counted. MOONLIGHT understands that better than most other films on the cinematic landscape.
There are bold strokes of this concept throughout the film, but for my money it is most powerful in the film’s final act. In that moment, we are given two men to consider as we watch them reconcile who they are with what they knew of the other. The scene is charged, tense, sometimes timid, and deeply emotional. It exists entirely in the blurry space between friendship and romance. It takes a room that looks freakishly ordinary and makes it look like the sexiest place you would ever want to be.
All of this comes thanks to two men being emotionally honest; reconciling who they are with who they were in the quest for identity.
This is not my film. So very little of this is “my story”. To suggest that the film transcends into something greater is an insult to what it wants to represent. Instead, what I know is that what this film is and what it represents moved me deeply. I was invited to sit down at a table I so seldom get to sit at, and listen to the stories being shared over food and wine. That is a blessing, and we should all feel deep gratitude that director Barry Jenkins and all involved with MOONLIGHT have blessed us mere moviegoers so richly.
MOONLIGHT is a singular film at a time where so few films feel singular. It is beautiful, bold, and brave in a time where so few films are. For that reason alone, it needs to be celebrated.