There is an idea in progressive politics and critical theory known as intersectionality. Simply put, intersectional theory supposes that we are all made up of multiple overlapping social identities. In order to understand the complexities of human behavior, and the varying levels of discrimination in our society, each social identity must be understood as being inextricably linked with the others. That’s why an LGBT woman of color can face more oppressive obstacles than an LGBT man who is white. If that feels overly clinical and cold, art holds the key to humanizing such ideas. Moonlight, the story of one man told over 20 years, explores these notions in emotionally exquisite and sublimely human ways.
We check in on Chiron (pronounced Shy-ron) at three moments in his life, each one formative and powerful in their own way. We first see him as a young boy of seven or eight, a smaller-than-normal African American child whom everyone calls “Little”. Living in an economically depressed neighborhood in Miami, Florida, the shy and bullied Little struggles with his lack of a father figure and is subjected to the whims of his controlling, crack-addicted mother, Paula. Little hesitantly befriends the local drug dealer, Juan, and his girlfriend, Teresa, after schoolmates chase him into a dilapidated apartment building.
It’s in this early stage of the film that director Barry Jenkins sets the tone for the poetic, beautifully melancholic story he tells. Most of the impact in Moonlight comes from the understated, but deeply moving performances throughout the film. Alex Hibbert makes his screen debut in Moonlight as Little, and he is utterly guileless and wholly believable. Hibbert sets the standard for young Chiron that his older counterparts work hard to match.
Naomie Harris – the most recent Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise – is able to hit multiple notes in the role of Little’s mother throughout. Paula is introduced when Juan brings her son home after staying at the drug dealer’s house all night, following the bullying incident. She is irked with Little but glad he is home, and punishes him for not checking in. There is a nagging feeling about how this interaction goes, though. She is upset with Little for being out all night, but she’s not too upset. Harris plays Paula as a woman just barely keeping things together on the surface, and the transformation as her addiction overpowers her is masterful.
Mahershala Ali is probably best known for his work on TV in series like Treme, House of Cards and recently as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage. As the drug dealing Juan in Moonlight, Ali breaks through to a new level above his excellent work in those shows. There is both a tenderness and a hard edge to Juan that comes to an emotional apex when Little confronts Juan about being the man who sells his mother the poison that has gripped her life. Ali is on screen for a maximum of 25 minutes, but his effect on the movie reverberates throughout the entire film.
As a teenager, Chiron tries desperately to shun his nickname, even though his meek demeanor makes that task even harder. Still bullied, particularly by a classmate named Terrel (played with a brutal menace by Patrick Decile), Chiron develops a complex relationship with one of his boyhood friends, Kevin. Intersectionality really comes into play as both Chiron and Kevin discover longings that are frowned upon by society in general, and by the African American community specifically. Ashton Sanders takes up the mantle of Chiron from Hibbert, playing our teen-aged hero with raw emotion that can speak easily to anyone who felt like an outsider in their formative years.
Everyone makes mistakes, especially in the turbulent years of adolescence. But as many studies and statistics can confirm, those mistakes have a tendency to follow black men around for the rest of their lives compared to others who break the law. A choice that Chiron makes in high school drastically impacts the rest of his life, which is the context of the chapter focused on his adulthood. On-screen titles break each section of Chiron’s story for us, beginning with “Little,” then “Chiron,” and finally, simply, “Black.” Chiron is a few years out of prison, and working in the trade of Juan, his first, brief father figure. A phone call out of nowhere from his old friend Kevin brings up many years of mixed and confusing emotions. Chiron decides to travel back to Miami to see Kevin, anyway.
The fully-grown Chiron is played by Travante Rhodes. The actor’s highly toned and muscular physique displays how Chiron was hardened by his time behind bars. Rhodes’ complex and quiet performance, though, shows that under all that muscle, not much has changed. Chiron is still the contemplative, vulnerable kid we met in the first act. His interactions with Kevin (now played with a subtle sensitivity by André Holland) make up the bulk of our last look at Chiron. Moonlight is based on a play by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney, and director Jenkins holds on to the feeling of a small chamber piece in this last act exceptionally well. The two men’s conversations are wound tightly with hidden desires and emotional resonance.
Barry Jenkins collaborated with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell to give Moonlight a distinctly haunting tone that complements the affecting performances in the film. Laxton’s gorgeous photography – at the same time lush and gritty, with flares of neon accents – makes Miami a vital character in the story. Britell’s sparse orchestral score highlights brief moments of Malickian lyricism, which Jenkins uses to externalize the inner turmoil that Chiron is going through.
Moonlight is a look at a very singular point of view in the fabric of humanity, but the experiences that the film conveys can be universally understood. It prizes the human capability for empathy and understanding. It’s a powerful example of how we are all made stronger through acts of love and acceptance.
Why it got 5 stars:
- Simply put, Moonlight is a transcendent experience. It is a great example of how the late Roger Ebert described movies, as an "empathy machine." People who have absolutely no connection to the kind of people in Moonlight can come to a greater understanding of them through the movie. I have to also imagine that people who can or do identify with the people depicted in the movie will be excited to see these representations on the screen. On a technical level, the way director Jenkins effortlessly slips between straightforward storytelling and lyrical cinematic passages is sublime.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is really serious about addressing the issues raised by the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Moonlight would be a damn good place to start. In a just world, the movie would get a nomination in almost every category. While I think the real problem is that not enough people of color are in positions of power when it comes to the decision making process in Hollywood (studio heads, executives, etc.), making sure movies of exceptional quality such as Moonlight are recognized come awards time is also a crucial part of the equation.
- Special shout out to Trevante Rhodes, who plays the adult version of Chiron in the movie. Mr. Rhodes was born in Louisiana, but was raised in Little Elm, Texas, about 40 miles north of my base of operations in Dallas. While researching that, I discovered that Sasha Lane, the newly discovered talent in American Honey, is from Frisco, which is close to Little Elm. Texas represent!