At a glance, Moonlight resembles the spirit of Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, Boyhood, in a way that it follows the twisted voyage of a boy to become man, embracing what matters in him. Yet, Moonlight puts twists into this self-discovery drama – challenging black male masculinity with fragility to mirror Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain in a different scale.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins adapts Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unperformed play titled ‘In Moonlight Black Boy Looks Blue’ into a three-phase story of a black gay boy’s self-maturation in which each chapter resembles the identity he embraces. As a boy, he’s Little (portrayed by Alex Hibbert), a little bully target taken under the wing of a crack-dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali); as a teen, he’s Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a taciturn boy who finds love in his own best friend; and as a grown-up, he’s Black (Trevante Rhodes), embracing the identity given by his long-lost love. Three phases might define him differently, but his inner identity stays intact; waiting for acceptance that keeps troubling him.
As a little, different boy, Chiron embraces the nickname his peers give to him to insult his lack of masculinity that has long been attached to black community. Alex Hibbert brings a fragile charm to little Chiron as a child missing for parental guidance (or even acceptance) and fatherly (and motherly) figure. Chiron’s mother (astonishingly Naomie Harris) is an abusive crackhead, who gives zero-fuck about him. Therefore, when Juan finds him and, along with his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), guides him about his sexuality and self-acceptance, Chiron begins to let go of his ‘Little’ identity.
As a teenager, Chiron, now portrayed by Ashton Sanders, has embraced his own identity as Chiron and not Little anymore. However, his peers aren’t as accepting as him and he learns that whether he gives in to people’s judgment or fight back to it, the result will always be the same for him; and it may cost him his whole life. Growing up to be a taciturn boy, Chiron finds solace in his best friend, which at the same time locks on his personal choice of sexuality.
As a man, things may not become as Chiron wants to be. The hard life has made him leaving whatever identity he used to embrace; instead, he bears a new one – a tough, macho one – as a crack-dealer; however, we all know that it’s not what his inner identity wants to be. Moonlight presents them all with no pretension and not even a preach; it all flows naturally, although the dramatization takes place in some moments.
Barry Jenkins stages Moonlight beautifully with neat mise-en-scene and beautiful cinematography shot by James Laxton. Moonlight is visually illuminating in portraying the rawest life of a black gay man in a hardened society, but mostly, glowing in depicting Chiron’s inner rawest inner-battle, which often highlights his empty stares in a dreamlike sequences. Those beautiful, bitter scenes are made perfect with perfect music scores that somehow speaks Chiron’s silence into something that connects with audiences’ nerves.
However, Moonlight isn’t another style-over-substance renegade; what Jenkins highlight truly is the character’s grow. Jenkins ensures that audiences witnessing how a boy grows into a man, portrayed by three different actors, but feels as one entity in a trinity. Each actor who portrays Chiron with each different identity projected absorbs the inner identity, which makes Chiron himself; therefore, without exercising what Boyhood does, Moonlight captures perfectly how the character grows. Kudos to Jenkins’ persistent and consistent direction (and this is only his second feature).
As important as Chiron as the main protagonist are the supporting roles, which repetitively plays deus-ex-machina roles to Chiron in his life. House of Cards and Luke Cage star, Mahershala Ali, portrays a fatherly figure, which help Chiron defines ‘his life’ and embraces his identity in the first phase. Ali showcases his prowess in one of the most poignant scenes, where Chiron asks about what faggot is; but, mainly, his character is an irony. In the second phase, the god-from-the-machine is adolescent Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron’s longtime friend,who opens the pandora box for him; Jerome’s performance is as strong as Ali, therefore, he deserves the attention Ali gets, too. During the third phase, that character manifests in Chiron’s estranged mother, who turns from the one who breaks him into someone who makes him; Naomie Harris bears this role superbly, hence the recognition.
This drama doesn’t need to be big and doesn’t need a big grandiosity to make it a compelling, timeless (although, it’s now more time-bound than it should’ve been). Moonlight is a great film to celebrate; it’s an ode to inner-identity crisis and a song to the challenged black masculinity. It’s a beautiful without needing to be grand.