Given the high levels of anticipation in the run up to its release, and with only one (little seen) feature film under his belt, Barry Jenkins had a lot to prove with his film adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2003 play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (2003). Luckily, the film is a triumphantly poignant and slow-burning drama; offering a stunning exploration of how perspectives of sexuality, masculinity, and race intersect and react with one another. Decidedly “low-key” in its initial approaches, and with a permanent undercurrent of raw emotional power, Moonlight is a deliciously vibrant study of black life in America that smacks of Romanticism.
Taking on a triptych narrative form, Moonlight is an episodic chronicling of three important stages (the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood) in the life of protagonist Chrion (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively), a young black man struggling to find himself within the confines of a rough neighbourhood in Miami. In structuring itself this way the narrative effectively fractures itself into excerpts of a man’s experience that become microcosmic when viewed alongside one another, rather than becoming an exhaustive linear biography. A risk of this particular branch of three-act storytelling is the requirement of three actors of different ages to portray a single character—something that Moonlight carries off with a remarkable ease. Whilst the three main actors are working from individual mindsets within their respective episodes, the performances blend together seamlessly to create a cohesively fleshed out character with a real emotional resonance that overshadows any minor discrepancies in the continuity of their physical appearances.
The acting itself is phenomenal across the board, with a plethora of strong performances working in perfect harmony to deliver a deep empathy that transcends the film’s inclusion of the stereotypes traditionally found in dramas set amongst ghettos. While stock figures (like the drug dealer, the mother who succumbs to drug addiction, and the innocent child caught in the in-between) are used, their characters aren’t reduced to two-dimensional tropes due to the richness of their respective portrayals. Each character is simultaneously nonchalant towards the well-being of those surrounding them and endowed with innate emotive links to one another; resulting in a restrained altruism that’s strikingly realistic in its delivery.
And it’s exactly this brand of realism that makes Moonlight resonate so emotionally; with its ability to balance toughness and softness becoming much more than a simple dichotomy when placed alongside its constant challenging of masculinity. Various men enter and alter Chiron’s life; from the drug-dealer-turned-father-figure Juan (Mahershala Ali); his only real friend and first sexual partner Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/Andre Holland); even the school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) significantly affects Chiron’s life in his cultivation of violence. Male characters enter and leave the narrative with neither an introduction nor a farewell, which effectively creates a vacuum of information by removing any explanation for their silent movement in/out of Chiron’s surroundings—essentially meaning that the film’s presentation of “manhood” becomes a constantly shifting paradigm in accordance with the intermittent presence of its characters’ influences.
Silence is a driving force within the film, as it places an emphasis on the non verbal communication that permeates the narrative with a sense of fear and despair masked under a feigned nonchalance. Chiron speaks infrequently, which simultaneously draws attention to the problems faced by those trying to articulate unexplored aspects of themselves and underpins his words with inherent poignancy. This also places a direct importance on the soundtrack to create a sense of unspoken expression through a series of similarly fleeting, beautiful, and ominous scores.
Alongside this, Jenkins makes a visible effort to stray as far away from the recent trend of opting for a ‘gritty’ aesthetic appearance; choosing instead to make use of a rich variety of colour that is striking in its vibrancy, and charming in its freshness (courtesy of both cinematographer James Laxton, and colourist Alex Bickel). This use of colour allows Moonlight to establish a series of juxtapositions—namely its array of pastel and primary colours against its impoverished setting; its narrative’s darker, more violent, narrative moments; and Chiron’s emotional turmoil. The result is a distinctly dreamy quality that, while appearing intricately formulated, remains stark in its contrasts and aggressive in its resonance; meshing itself beautifully alongside Moonlight‘s balance of sound with silence for emotional impact.
While Moonlight‘s trajectory may seem familiar: it’s because of its firm grounding within the realms of reality and common occurrences. And while Chiron’s environment and situation is specific, Jenkins’ directing allows an intersectional flavour to creep in through the universal aspects of adolescent trauma and coming to terms with placing oneself in the universe. Its narrative has a power that lies within its richness of empathy and a sense of identification with its characters, rather than within a slew of shock twists or unexpected plot deviations.
With this being said, Moonlight is a distinctly (and unapologetically) Black film, with its exploration of what the concepts of sexual identity and masculinity can by defined by when experienced by POC in contemporary society remaining at its core throughout. Its an extremely important film; not merely because of the lack of diversity within mainstream cinema of late, but because of the raw emotion and sheer beauty in its depictions of black men.