Moonlight is a drama of a black American male told in three distinct acts. Each has its own title, and each has its own structure with a beginning, middle and end, though each slowly fades with the desire of you wanting to see more, even at the conclusion.
The central character, Chiron, is viewed at different ages of his life, beginning as a boy around the age of ten, then as a teenager, then as a young adult. As the first story ends, with the background that we now know, weight is added to the next, then more to the next. You can never fully know or understand a person, not even those closest to you, but by the end of Moonlight with the stories you’re told and the moments you’ve seen, you may feel you understand someone like Chiron in a way you never thought you could. It is quite unique.
At the beginning of the first act, titled i: little, the first time we see Chiron (here played by Alex Hibbert) he’s a shy ten year-old, something of an outsider. He’s nicknamed Little because of his stature. He’s considered soft by the bullies who taunt him. After he’s chased from a playground, Chiron hides in a derelict building, an abandoned motel now used as a dope hole by addicts. It’s here, crouching in the corner, head buried in his arms, where the boy is found and befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer who takes the introverted boy home. Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monae) feeds Chiron, gets him to open up a little, and gives him shelter for the night. The boy would rather stay with Teresa and Juan than return home to his mother. It’s also here where the boy asks, “What’s a faggot?”
Already, you can see how the film is breaking stereotypes, and it first occurs at the moment when Juan befriends the boy. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) may be kin, and our initial introduction to her is to see her as a hardworking, single mother, but she’s also an emotional abuser, a bully in her own way, clearly responsible for much of Chiron’s inner loneliness and withdrawn personality. Plus, she’s escaping the difficulties of her life with drugs; a conflict for the boy that comes on different levels once Chiron realizes that the adult who sells her the drugs is the one who’s become a friend. The conclusion is silently devastating.
The second act is titled ii: chiron, and here the boy (now played by teenager Ashton Sanders) continues to be withdrawn and bullied by classmates. He’s forced to hang back after hours on school grounds, frightened to leave, knowing there’s a gang waiting to beat him. His only friend is Kevin (Jahrrel Jerome), a character seen briefly in the first act. With his mother’s life spiraling out of control, addicted to crack and demanding money from her son when he has little to give, Chiron finds comfort in the company of Kevin. A late night conversation on the beach between the boys turns into a slow moment of physical exploration and never-before experienced passion. But events will later turn ugly when his closest friend is forced by the bullies to beat Chiron as part of a brutal ritual. Again, like the conclusion of the first act, the ending of act two results in something devastating that will irreversibly change the lives of all concerned forever.
The third act is titled iii: black, and it’s the nickname given to Chiron by his childhood friend, Kevin. Chiron (now played as an adult by athlete Trevante Rhodes) is virtually unrecognizable from the gaunt, skinny boy we met in act two. To tell more is to give away too much, but what can be said is that he’s now moved from Florida and living in Atlanta, Georgia. The change of location and environment has brought a physical change of character – in his words, he’s built himself from the ground up – though despite his occupation, one that requires a hard, exterior sheen, there’s remains something of that withdrawn, lonely boy as witnessed in the two previous acts, and it’s something unresolved. Then, in the middle of the night, he receives a call.
The film’s title is an abbreviated form of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Screenplay credits go to its director, Barry Jenkins, though story credits go to Tarell Alvin McCraney. Looking for a project that would reflect something personal, Jenkins saw McCraney’s play and immediately recognized a common ground that both writers had covered in their lives and desired to tell in story form. Jenkins took McCraney’s work, retained many of the play’s themes, and restructured it in cinematic terms, using three individual times of the central character’s life in order to tell its tale.
Both writers had mothers with drug addictions. It’s this personal experience of witnessing drug usage in the black community that creates a more interwoven approach to its effects than you would normally see. Other than brief scenes of Chiron’s drug-addled mother angrily demanding money from her son to feed her habit, the power throughout is in the silence from all parties, not the hysterics. When the ten year-old Chiron asks his adult friend Juan if he’s the one supplying the boy’s mother with drugs, Juan can only hang his head in silent shame, discovering perhaps for the first time in his illegal, supply and demand, street-corner career, the real effects of his trade.
Cinematographer James Laxton uses a colorful widescreen look, avoiding the expected documentary style you might associate with the film’s themes of showing the human condition by keeping the frame steady, though he occasionally shoots with a handheld as witnessed when Chiron is chased across open land and into the derelict motel to hide from the bullies. Plus, during the opening moments, the camera giddily chases around the street-corner dealers in seemingly never ending circles to the point where you want it to stop.
There’s also an interesting use of violins by Nicholas Britell, punctuating moments of silence with the lush quality of orchestral strings made all the more interesting when, during the climactic seconds of act two, the orchestra sounds not so much in tune but as if frantically warming up, readying itself for the performance of the oncoming act.
When the ending comes, it may feel initially abrupt in the way a film can often feel when you want to know more. But later, as you reflect back on what occurred and how it concluded, there’s no other way of ending Chiron’s story. The film has shared enough. The next act is another new beginning and it’s not for us to know, only to speculate. With companionship comes an emotional payoff that can’t be fully illustrated other than the way the film fades and leaves us. Like the rest of Moonlight, the power remains in the silence.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall rating: 9 (out of 10)