Director/Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” when he was an undergraduate theatre student. He was trying to work through some issues in his life, most particularly, coming to terms with his relationship with his late mother, a drug addict. The elliptical, unproduced play was semiautobiographical, set in his home neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with its main character, Chiron, existing simultaneously on stage at ages 10, 16, and 25. McCraney created this structure to comment on how all versions of ourselves reside within us throughout our lives. He considered the play unproducible and more a personal exercise than anything else.
The miracle that birthed the movie began when Barry Jenkins got his hands on the play. Providentially, he had grown up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mother at almost the same time as McCraney, though the two didn’t know each other; McCraney’s house stood across the street from Jenkins’ high school. Jenkins wrote the script, preserving some of the language and all of the spirit of the play, and fusing his own experiences with McCraney’s to create a piece that sings with emotional truth.
Jenkins jettisoned the play’s structure and created a linear screenplay in three acts: Little, Chiron, and Black. He cast Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron (“Little”), Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”). These actors don’t physically resemble each other, but they and Jenkins somehow find the immutable essence of Chiron; the many close-ups Jenkins employs allow us to capture all of the nuances of performance that connect each of these Chirons to each other, convincing us that we are looking at the same person over time.
Chiron’s world sounds like a ghetto cliché—absent father, beaten-down mother dragged under by a crack addiction, surrounded by bullies and burglar bars, destined for prison. Yet like a dandelion that somehow lifts itself up through the concrete sidewalk, Chiron finds grace and connection in singular, almost blindingly beautiful moments. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood drug dealer, a do-ragged brother from Cuba who wears a gold front over his bottom teeth and sucks his tongue reflexively. Jenkins spins this unpromising character into an almost mythic figure when we first meet him by directing his camera in a swirling, background-obscuring, 360-degree turn around him as though conjuring a genie from a bottle.
Juan may be all things bad to the outside world, but he and his kindly girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provide what little is good for Chiron. Cinematographer James Laxton puts us right in the water when Juan introduces Chiron to the wonders of the ocean, teaching him to swim and applauding with pride when the boy dog-paddles through the gentle swells. Jenkins offers moments of dark psychological violence when Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, dressed and lit in shades of red, screams something at him that we are not allowed to hear. Only later do we understand what everyone but Chiron himself seems to know: “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan and Teresa. “Am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer is a model of decency and love. Sadly, the fragile relationship between them is lost when Juan again answers truthfully when Chiron asks, “Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?”
The second important male in Chiron’s life is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stands by him even when the other boys are bullying and excluding him. In a poignant scene, the boys in Chiron’s grade school are playing ball, with Chiron hanging on the fringes trying to get into the game. It’s heartbreaking, but then comes one of those breath-catching grace notes: Kevin comes over to him and the two walk off talking as friends do. In act two, a lanky, reticent Chiron is wound like a top, dodging the bullying that has taken a more savage turn and negotiating homelife with a ghostly Paula who only comes to life to demand money from him. Once again, Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, validates Chiron with an act of sexual love, this time on a moonlit beach they learn one aimless, restless night that they both like to visit. And as with Juan, Chiron’s connection with Kevin is shattered when Terrel (Patrick Decile), the toughest of the bullies, forces him to give Chiron a beatdown. In a sad overhead shot, we see Chiron bury his face in a sink full of ice and emerge with a bloodied, emotionally frozen face.
Act three shows that Chiron is still in thrall to these two men. Buffed out and living in Atlanta, where his mother lives and works in a rehab facility, Chiron has become a drug dealer just like Juan, emulating his style, driving his car, and bringing young men along in the business, but with a bit more teasing cruelty than Juan ever displayed. He calls himself Black, a nickname Kevin gave him when they were boys, a name he still does not understand. Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland) calls him—a song on the jukebox in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook reminded him of his long-ago friend. Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see him. Their nighttime reunion recalls their night on the beach, and though Kevin surprises Chiron with the picture of his child by a woman he no longer sees, this final act is filled with romantic possibility.
In act one, Juan says to Chiron, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Moonlight actually gives us the time, space, and scope to watch someone decide what it will take to become his authentic self. As a boy, Chiron is buffeted by forces he’s too young and uneducated to comprehend, but he understands the connections between his pain and the people around him. His mother, whom he says he hates, is still his “only,” as Paula puts it; Paula puts a lot of stock in being “blood,” so it’s hard to imagine Chiron hasn’t internalized that lesson, too. He still visits her, if infrequently, as a grown man. His anger at being bullied, but moreso at having his connection to Kevin ruined by Terrel, brings him to violence and a stretch in prison, so he is sufficiently self-aware to know what is in his heart of hearts. But his persona, mimicking Juan, reveals a stuckness that all too many people never defeat. Kevin’s phone call is as providential as our first meeting with Juan, a message from the universe that Chiron’s time has come. The final image of the film has a somewhat mystical quality to it, not so much love’s fulfillment as life’s promise for Chiron now that he knows what Kevin asked: “Where’s you, Chiron?”
Jenkins and Laxton have created a visual tone poem awash in the dreamy colors and the natural beauty of Miami. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a poor, black neighborhood not punt to the regulation burned-out wasteland that many filmmakers, particularly slumming white ones, imagine. The cast is beyond good, making themselves vulnerable in ways that I find absolutely stunning. Ali has a strong, etched face that nonetheless is soft; when Paula moves Chiron away from him as though he had the plague, the surprised hurt on his face is heartbreaking. Young Alex Hibbert, in his first screen role, lays the strong foundation on which Sanders and Rhodes build an indelible portrait of a confused, painfully shy manchild, and Jerome and Holland are especially good at depicting an endearing, astute observer whose love for his friend breaks down all of Chiron’s near-implacable barriers. Harris plays a woman almost completely unlike herself and somehow manages to show incredible need—for crack, for her son—without making Paula a monster.
The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion. Moonlight is a prayer for humanity; let’s hope we can all find it in our hearts to listen.