Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight is a Romantic masterpiece of the highest order. It is a comprehensive exultation of self-discovery told in three sections, each detailing the events in the life of Chiron, a black gay boy growing up in the Liberty Square projects of Miami, Florida. The three parts show Chiron at different ages: as a young boy in part one (“Little”), a teenager in part two (“Chiron”), and a young man in part three (“Black”), and each version of Chiron is portrayed by a different actor. Chiron’s life is full of hardship, as he is forced to deal with growing up poor, navigating the minefield of his mother’s drug abuse problem, and his burgeoning homosexuality. The chapters of Moonlight add up to a magnificent and timeless whole: a complex elucidation of a man and the choices he makes in effort to learn about himself, the world, and his place in it.
Each chapter of Moonlight opens with a short bumper before a title card, and the first is called, “Little”. This chapter begins by looking in at the life of a crack dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), as he checks in on his operation. We’re introduced to Chiron as he is being chased by a group of other children, but he escapes and hides in an abandoned crack den, where Juan finds him. When Chiron doesn’t talk to him, Juan takes the child back to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). From here, we explore the life of young Chiron and the growing relationship he has with Juan and Teresa.
Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert in this section, and he is perfectly scared, confused, and sad at the world that he has to live in. His mother is Paula (Naomie Harris), and frequently disappears or descends into a drug-addled haze, leaving Chiron to himself. Chiron is very reticent, doesn’t like talking to anyone, and is always shy and afraid around others his age. His best friend is Kevin (Jaden Piner in part one), the other character that we see cast as three different actors.
The major narrative thrust of this section involves Chiron beginning to come to an understanding of the realities of his world. There is a homosexual energy even at this early stage, as Chiron wrestles with Kevin on a field, and the boys participate in the good old-fashioned penis-showing game. These hints foreshadow the coming drama, and are placed here in an effort to get the audience thinking about the issues that will soon confront Chiron – a poor, black, gay boy.
But the driving force in this chapter is Juan, who takes Chiron under his wing when he recognizes that Paula is an unfit parent. But, there is a tragic contradiction in this arrangement: Juan is a drug dealer himself. Jenkins brilliantly dramatizes this conflict in two breath-taking sequences, both of which feature Juan being confronted about his job: once by Paula and once by Chiron himself.
Mahershala Ali’s performance in these sequences are mesmerizing and tragic. Most of this performance is visual, playing across Ali’s face as realization and disappointment dawns on him. For his part, young Alex Hibbert holds his own, and delivers some crushing lines, especially given his tendency toward shyness.
Now in high school, Chiron (Aston Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) are still friends, but have new problems to deal with like bullies, hazing rituals, and the same ever-present threat of drug abuse. Most crucial to this part is a bully named Terrel, who constantly harasses Chiron. Still dealing with his mother’s drug addiction, which has gotten worse, Chiron struggles to stand up for himself against the taunts of Terrel and his friends. Overall, this section casts Chiron as a man trying to hold on to life however he can, despite the soul-crushing nature of the difficulties around him. He is given some solace in a night time tryst with Kevin, where Chiron’s homosexuality is finally acted upon with Kevin (who seems more bisexual).
Tragedy strikes again, though: Terrel organizes a hazing ritual where Kevin has to punch anyone of Terrel’s choosing until the mark stays down. Of course, Terrel chooses Chiron. Enervated by Kevin’ betrayal, Chiron continues to get up until Kevin relents, but this only goads Terrel and his gang into delivering a beat-down to Chiron.
Again, the performances throughout this section are absolutely flawless. Sanders is tragic and wounded in the counselor’s office after the beating, as he vainly grasps for some explanation that will satisfy her. He’s also fiery and determined when he takes his defense directly into his own hands, consequences be damned. These sequences indicate that Chiron has begun to take control over his life, to make choices.
The final glare Chiron delivers to Kevin is pregnant with meaning and intent, as if to say, “why did you put me in this position”? It’s a condemnation of the friend that has betrayed him, and it is communicated with a single glance. This is a testament to the prowess of Barry Jenkins, and by this point in the film you recognize that you are watching something special – a man in complete control of his craft.
In standard trilogy or three-act form, this second section is the darkest thematically. Here, Chiron’s mother’s drug problem is at its most severe, his sexuality has led to the greatest insult, and though he has begun to take his life into his own hands, his violent choice is met with criminalization and punishment.
As an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is now selling drugs in Atlanta, goes by the nickname, “Black”, and frequently gets called to come visit his mom. He also gets a call from Kevin (now André Holland), apologizing for his actions as a younger man and asking Chiron to come visit him at the diner he works at. “Black” takes this trip, reconciles with his mother, and goes to meet Kevin. The interaction is oddly paced and wanders between awkward and genuinely heartwarming, despite Chiron’s job as a drug dealer.
Kevin invites Chiron to stay the night, and explains that though his life has turned out far different than he had expected, he finds himself satisfied and happy. Chiron finally confesses that Kevin was the only one who has ever touched him, and that Chiron never felt content or happy exploring that part of his identity. The two reconcile, and this “confession” from Chiron feels like climax and resolution all in one – a man accepting himself for the first time.
The three-part organization of Moonlight goes above and beyond the standard three-act structure and ascends to something more thematically poignant. By casting the two central characters with three different actors, Jenkins adds to the cinematic experience by indicating that Chiron is not a constant character, and that he exists in a world that is ever-changing itself. The director selectively re-create Chiron’s story by showing us only its essential details, and omitting the remainder as unimportant to the plot and themes.
Thus, we see very little of Chiron’s transformation into Black and the subsequent drug dealing, because Moonlight is not essentially about the cyclical nature of the drug trade, or even of being poor and black. This is an important aspect of the film, of course, but it is secondary to the major focus: the sexual maturation and self-acceptance of a young gay black man, a minority-of-a-minority who comes to the conclusion that it is okay for him to be himself.
This is the genius of Jenkins’s film, and the reason it is universally relevant: while the details of the story revolve around homosexuality and the poor black experience, Moonlight is quintessentially about all experiences of self-discovery.
The film (and the play it is based on) takes its title from a sequence in the first section, where Juan is explaining to Chiron that a woman in Cuba used to call him “Blue”, because, “In moonlight, black boys look blue.” But Juan chides Chiron when he asks if he let the old woman call him by that name, “You can’t let people decide for you who you are going to be.” The concluding scene of the film reiterates this main thesis in a particularly gorgeous piece of imagery.
The cinematography throughout Moonlight is an inspiration. It is soft during the more romantic and tender moments, and quite harsh and frenetic during Chiron’s most tumultuous times. Cinematographer James Laxton has a keen eye for composition as well, often moving Chiron around the screen in interesting ways. For example, in the closing sequence of the “Little” portion, Chiron sits at a table between Juan and Teresa, peppering them with questions. It isn’t adversarial, it is more like a roundtable discussion. Contrast this with Chiron and Kevin having dinner in the final chapter: across from each other, shot in alternating over-shoulder shots. Little details like this exist throughout the film, punctuating the general gorgeous aesthetic appeal of the film.
Barry Jenkins seems quite adept at using minute details to imply larger ideas, and his screenplay does this quite often. He adapted the screenplay himself, from Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and the inclusion of little choices make this film incredibly rich, and likely will reward multiple repeat viewings. Some of the sexual foreshadowing has been mentioned earlier, but there are other examples as well. The dialogue in particular is fantastic, and Jenkins himself recognizes that it was one of the aspects of McCraney’s play that most spoke to him, saying “What grabbed me was the way the guys [in the play] talked to each other – and the way they didn’t talk to each other.”
Finally, and most importantly, Moonlight deftly handles some of the most universal themes in all of human existence: the struggle to find one’s identity, the harsh truth that our parents are just flawed people, and the importance of love and forgiveness. There are also myriad subthemes that play themselves out in the periphery of this grander story: the difficulty of being poor, the cyclical nature of the drug trade and drug addiction, homophobia, bullying, and the need to stand up for oneself. These ideas all coalesce into one poignant statement, delivered near the beginning of the film: you can’t let other people decide the kind of person that you are going to be. Jenkins tells this very human and universal story with astounding ability, transforming what could have been a dry piece of Naturalism into one of the great masterpieces of Romanticism in the history of cinema.