An impressionistic poem wrought in light and sound, Barry Jenkins queer black triptych Moonlight is a cinematic masterpiece. Staggering.
A name has power. There are the names we are given, defined by our parents, the nicknames bestowed on us by friends or lovers, those we choose to identify with ourselves and the hateful ones our enemies hurl to hurt and control us.
For minorities, often the power of names used to demean, dismiss and dehumanise are subverted. They are reclaimed and repurposed, worn as a badge of strength and courage, giving voice to the disparaged.
Three names mark the incandescent chapters of writer/director Barry Jenkins’ shimmering masterpiece Moonlight, a triptych of immense vigour that channels hate and despair at the intersection of race, sexuality and masculinity, mired in the midst of grinding poverty, and reshapes it as love.
Little. Chiron. Black.
Adapted by Jenkins from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s succinctly alluring play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we first spy Chiron, as played by Alex Hibbert, as a slip of boy. Fleeing from relentless tormentors who would pin his sexual identity long before he is adult enough to understand, ‘Little’ hides in an abandoned and boarded-up house in a run-down area of Miami policed by drug dealers.
Namely Juan, a rightly lauded Mahershala Ali, our first eyes on Chiron. Smartly toying with unconscious bias, Jenkins at first frames Juan as possible threat as his first confrontation with Chiron plays out in this darkened space, but this is no grainy, hand-held snatch of voyeuristic condescension, played out neatly within stereotypical boundaries.
This is the world Jenkins, who is not queer, grew up in, and it’s one of beauty as much as struggle, captured with a woozy brilliance by James Laxton’s impressionistic cinematography. When the steady hand of the camera chooses to swirl around Little, the focus pushes and pulls like the eddies of the sea that so imprints itself on this neighbourhood, on this story and on Chiron’s heart.
Juan becomes mentor, folding the unsure Chiron under his wing, teaching him to swim, to let go, to trust, in a sublime moment establishing Moonlight’s elemental tie to the swell of the ocean and its ethereal symbolism as an enormous force for death and rebirth.
The fledgling Chiron sees a glimpse of a different kind of life in this older man and his loving partner Therese (Janelle Monáe), a safe haven far from the incremental traumas induced at home by a fitfully addicted Paula, his jittery, quick to anger mother played by an also excellent Naomie Harris. The film shifts between realism artfully captured and a strangely nightmarish half-world just beyond here, in the play of light in a purgatorial hallway.
But the dynamic between these figures in Chiron’s life, just like everything about this subtle knife of a film, is more complex than any casual reading might imply, a shifting field of perspective playing like sea-dappled light.
Two questions asked at a dinner table confound and create anew. The first, “what is a faggot?” Juan’s answer to this explosion of verbal violence that punctures a young man’s life is unexpected, but rich with a fatherly love, the stoke of a deft storytelling hand leaving open all possibility, as is Juan’s role. The second casts him off.
It’s in youth that Chiron also meets Kevin (Jaden Piner), a lone anchor of calm and a friend amidst the storm of schoolyard abuse as they bond over a soccer game played with a ball crafted from used newspaper.
The pair reconnect in high school, with a teenaged Chiron now going by his given name, one that refers to the nurturing centaur of Greek mythology, and played by Ashton Sanders. The merciless attacks he endures are unrelenting, and it’s a universal power of this film that anyone who has ever been bullied for who they are will share an aching bond with his pain.
Jharrel Jerome takes on the mantle of Kevin, and a late night chance meeting draws them back to the folds of the ocean under the stars, where blue skin shines most brightly, opening another portal of light, this time welcoming. The confluence of innocence and experience wrings unexpected tenderness from a freely proffered hand job on the beach, with the electricity of expectation and doubt just before the offer is crystalised with a kiss demonstrating pure, youthful eroticism at its most intense. There’s poetry caught in the glowing arc of sand flowing through Chiron’s shuddering hand, a revelation signalled by the roiling course of the sea.
The drama of teenage years is fraught with explosive love, particularly so when muddled with the toxicity of shame grasped in union with sexual awakening. Betrayal cuts deeper in these delicately opening years, and Chiron’s tortured path, at home, at school, and most painfully in his own head, takes him down a darker path, one that leads him far form Miami, from Kevin, from the sea and freedom.
But it’s the siren call of the ocean and that one brief moment shared with Kevin that summons an adult Chiron, played with remarkable assuredness by former track star Trevante Rhodes, back, care of an unexpected call.
While ‘Black’ has the least of the sparse dialogue divvied between the three actors who play Chiron, he is the most obviously changed. Hardened both physically and mentally, he moves with a confident swagger, the armour of someone unwilling to be victimised again, a conscious decision to become a big, not Little man, shielded by a bulwark of muscle. His life has become an homage to Juan, but what does this transformation mean? Who defines masculinity?
Rhodes conveys the youthful self-doubt beneath, and the unforgotten yearning for his childhood friend (now played by André Holland) that consumes Chiron. A performance burning brightly with what’s left unspoken, it is a great shame that he has not been more garlanded during awards season. All three actors, so alike in spirit, deserve the plaudits.
Love and forgiveness soaks into the very bones of Jenkins’ Moonlight, a tender and tumultuous enduring gift to cinema. A homecoming in many senses, the final act allows Chiron and Harris’ Paula to redefine their story, to unfurl and retwine the fraught bond between mother and son, and then, back where black becomes blue by the sea, Jenkins leaves us pregnant with hope. And hope is powerful indeed.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords