Moonlight: Barry Jenkins' gritty masterpiece reaches something greater
A film of immeasurable grace, writer/director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight chronicles the odyssey of Chiron, a gay African American man navigating a world that doesn't understand or value him. Here, that world is the rough project neighbourhoods of Miami, Florida.
Moonlight's Miami is not a tackily decorated paradise of hedonistic indulgence, but rather a blend of the cool etherealness of a moonlit beach and the ugly austerity of the decayed concrete terrain that make up its neighbourhoods. This is key to getting at Moonlight's heart; it is tenderly paradoxical. This tender paradox enlivens every aspect of this masterwork; from the sumptuous cinematography by James Laxton – whose camera resolutely locks tight on its characters' faces during painful moments and glides around them like an ocean breeze during lovely moments – to the score by Nicholas Britell that is sparingly used, but when deployed swells at exactly the perfect moment, and finally to the structure of its story that allows for intimacy and grandness, sometimes in the same scene. Even the gritty setting and character archetypes are set up in such a way as to reinforce preconceived notions, only to challenge and rebuke those notions as the story builds.
To some degree or another, we are all like Moonlight's taciturn protagonist, in that we're wearing a veil of loneliness to shield ourselves from the world's cruelties – both small and not small. Moonlight pierces that veil. Films offer good escapism on a normal day, and on a great day they are art. But how often do they pierce that veil and reach something greater? Almost never. I'm in awe of it.
The story is divided into three chapters, each complete with a different actor portraying Chiron during a crucial time of his life. They're crucial in that they illuminate Chiron's troubled path to manhood. But they're beautiful in that they draw from the specifically human haze of memory, mood, and emotion, and do away with a cleverly arranged medley of plot incident. Moonlight gets that the things that happen to a person do not satisfactorily illuminate why they are the way they are. For want of a better word, it's an incredibly humanly told story. It was through this mode of storytelling that I could deeply connect to Moonlight, even though I will never be a gay African American boy growing up on the streets of Miami.
Alex R. Hibbert is the little boy relentlessly tormented by school bullies and a drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris), and whose only guidance comes in the form of father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who's unintentionally contributing to the havoc wreaked on the little boy's life. Ashton Sanders is the gangly awkward teenager whose closeness to the cool kid of the school, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), heralds violent consequences. These first two chapters excellently build to the last and quietest chapter, when we're introduced to adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) who has become a visage of strength and intimidation, not through a desire to inflict violence upon people weaker than he, but as a calculation to protect himself – one might be too intimidated by his carefully cultivated gangsta performance to sense the ache underneath.
In this way, Moonlight is both a critique and an empathetic examination of hyper masculinity - another one of its tender paradoxes. Chiron as a young man is often severely beaten for being a “faggot”, the implication of that derogatory term of course being that he'll never be a real man because of his sexuality. When pressed by the school teacher, he refuses to snitch on his tormentors. Being an older woman in a position of authority, she has a measure of power over how the boy sees himself, and so when she spits at him “if you were a real man those knuckleheads would be here right now!” our heart breaks for the kid at the exact moment that he cries for the first time. Although this incident is small compared to the towering, almost mythical influence of his flawed father-figure Juan, and his angry mother, it's such a revealing moment. This boy can't get relief. This boy has to callous himself for the sake of his survival, because even a well-meaning adult can represent an existential threat to his identity. But it's a testament to Moonlight's grace that said teacher's frustration comes from a place of genuine kindness. You don't have to squint to see Moonlight's grace – it radiates just as clearly and brightly as its neon tinged palette; and when the credits roll, you'll have no words.