The surprising ‘Moonlight’
Barry Jenkins’ film turns the universal coming-of-age story into something very specific and intimate

During the first act of the tripartite Moonlight, an adult man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), shows a young boy, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), how to sit at his table. “You can’t sit with your back to the door,” Juan instructs his small friend, moving Little around so that the boy can command a view of the whole room. Juan is a drug dealer, and watchfulness comes with his territory, but in this moment he isn’t teaching Little to be wary. He’s teaching him to be open, and to hold himself with pride, whatever comes.

Surprises come often in Moonlight. In the opening scenes, Juan steps from his car onto a rundown Miami street where he oversees the local drug trade, and the camera takes a delirious, almost obtrusive 360-degree sweep around Juan and one of his drug runners as they chat. It’s the first indication that director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins does not intend to tell this story plain. Moments later we first see Little, a white shirt and dark brown skin against a blur of grass, running from a group of other boys. A brief shout easily missed – “Get his gay ass!” – issues from among the pursuers. This is a film made from such moments, tiny and unrepeatable, also indelible: each leaves a mark on the spirit and bearing of those involved. The viewer is included here, refused the safety of distance by Jenkins’ direction, James Laxton’s kinetic cinematography, and the vulnerable performances of actors whose characters have every reason to maintain their guard.

Little is an agonisingly shy, almost silent child whose real name is Chiron (pronounced Shyrone); Juan has to draw this information out of him like a fisherman teasing open a clam. Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, steady and warm-hearted), periodically shelter the young boy from his tormentors, who include Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Her love waxes and wanes with her addiction – and yes, Juan sells crack to her. There are no easy answers amid this moral tangle; the adults who love Little cannot protect him from their own failings.

The withdrawn young boy becomes a lanky teenager (Ashton Sanders), still bullied, and still frightened by his own desires. But there is some respite: in a central scene set at night on the Miami beach, Chiron connects with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a childhood friend who calls Chiron by another nickname, Black. “Why you always calling me that?” Chiron asks, and Kevin replies, simply, “That’s my name for you.” The name is a bond of affection, and the union between these two boys will echo through the years. When we meet him as an adult (played by Trevante Rhodes), Chiron has taken the name Black for himself.

There is a vivid sense of time at work in Moonlight. From act to act the story jumps forward by years, and within acts there are missing days, or even just minutes, that make us aware of how Chiron must constantly renegotiate his perilous place in the world. But the elisions also create a sense of privacy for the characters; events happen in between scenes (deaths, school exams, imprisonments), and are only briefly alluded to later on. Moonlight began as a play – In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney – and the film too, like certain kinds of theatre, allows us to believe in the complexity of characters who go on living even when we don’t see them.

On Sunday, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, Mahershala Ali gave a careful, powerful speech about difference and discrimination. On the one hand, he said, attention to difference can give us “an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique”. But, on the other, an obsession with difference can lead us to hostility, and to war. Ali spoke as an African-American Muslim man in a country that has just shut its borders to citizens and refugees of seven Muslim-majority nations.

Moonlight is a textured, lyrical, painfully beautiful film that bears witness to the ways in which difference makes and also breaks people. It is tempting to call it a universal story, a timeless story (and many have, for each of us carries a difference from one another), but this is too comforting, too glib. It is a specific story, of being queer, black and poor in America – still a story that is little told onscreen. In the final, intensely intimate part of Moonlight, the now adult Chiron and Kevin face each other across the table of a diner, for their first meeting in many years. Chiron sits facing the door as he was once taught to, and he looks at that door as if a ghost might walk through it, but also as if welcome might at last be his to find.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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