Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenplay: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Runtime: 111 Minutes
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a film about identity, about how we are formed through experiences in youth, about tapping into our own nature, and how much we are products of our own environments. A depiction of the life of Chiron, a gay man growing up in the poverty of Florida, mapped out across the years in a triptych structure of three different times in his life – as portrayed by three different actors; Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders & Trevante Rhodes. The journey we are taken on sees how perceptions of race and sexuality are shaped by circumstance, as is Chiron’s exhibited expression of masculinity in a burdensome and hostile environment.
There is little to no expositional dialogue of any kind in Jenkins’ screenplay beyond basic certainties. Developing on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story, character is explored strictly through visuals and tone, the sensation of touch and wavering proximity. For a story that homes in on the brutal complexities of a life in poverty – especially one for a young black man in the ‘land of opportunity’ – the picture is extraordinary for its tenderness and humanity. Submerged by an atmosphere of quietude and longing, there’s an underlying tension in the evolving relationship between Chiron and his closest friend Kevin, played once again by three different and superb actors; Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome & André Holland.
There’s a quiet sadness to the honesty that Chiron (like many others like him) is in so many ways unable to break out of the cycles of crime and abuse that thrive in industrial, poverty-stricken communities. These are symptomatic eventualities, but the largest restraint remains the bounds of flesh and the colour of skin. Jenkins stresses the significance of race as an earthly construct like an ancient fable being woven, and the high virtues that are held of stoic strength and supposedly heroic standing.
Character leads over plot, and every actor harbours a perfect understanding of their characters’ roots. The three performances of Chiron are mortal and astonishing. Alex Hibbert’s ‘Little’, Ashton Sanders’ ‘Chiron’ and Trevante Rhodes’ ‘Black’ define the decisive moments of Chiron’s life, with each carrying a lingering, physically sober demeanour that builds on the work of each respective actor. There’s that authentic feeling of genuine development, of years lived and experiences are taken in and absorbed like bruises, and as an adult growing to hide behind the façade of what society might expect of him.
The supporting roles are equally dyed-in-the-wool. Naomie Harris as his crack addict mother, Paula, delivers a raw, eye-opening and devastating performance of expressive cruelty, though the blood that binds them maintains the anchor of their relationship whenever she re-emerges from the ether. Mahershala Ali exudes so much magnetism as the surrogate father figure Juan in his early life, who steps in at just the right moment to foster the soul of the young Chiron before it is lost to the systems of subdual in place around him – his role in the story a shattering reminder of the succession of fathers, sons and brothers.
James Laxton’s cinematography lends the film an impossibly beautiful look; staring into the souls of its characters, long takes where the camera appears to lack the weight of its location, floating and trailing behind as it observes the figures in the frame with the same emotional rule as the Chiron’s. As does the score by Nicholas Britell, with the sounds of an orchestra pit trying to find its voice, or the right moment in which to flourish and explode with emotion, adrift with Chiron’s journey as he finds his place in the world, and as such darkening and growing with him. The colour blue saturates the film though it’s gorgeous looking of black bodies, the significance of the ocean is a constant which seems to be calling to him at moments of change.
Moonlight is a picture of wholly original creation and distinction within the cinematic medium. The dialogue is so strong, but it might be the least important aspect of a film about corporeal communication. The editing of these brief vignettes and glimpses of a life are breathtaking, never before has the process of a meal being created ever felt so absorbing with silent anticipation and baited breath. Powerful and moving in a way that works its way over the flesh and sinks in like an enchantment – a waking dream of a picture, and an essential piece of contemporary cinema.