Very rarely do I have an emotional experience during a movie with the last time I cried in a movie theater being the conclusion of The Deathly Hallows Part 2 on a glorious IMAX screen. But Moonlight isn’t a conclusion to some franchise but real life translated to the big screen. It consists of dark blues and baptism images, making each frame look like a masterpiece. Moonlight is a story that needed to be told and is achingly beautiful every step of the way.
Moonlight is based off of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. It is about a young boy, Chiron, who tries to come to terms with his budding sexuality in a tough Miami neighborhood. The film is shot in three stages: Chiron’s childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. We witness people come and go throughout his life and the effect that they have on his mindset. The film begins with ten year old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert). Even before he thinks about his sexuality, his classmates are already calling putting labels on him and nickname him “Little.” They chase him to a drug den where he is found by sympathetic drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). He quickly finds solace in Juan and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monae) and visits them everyday to escape his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris).
At first, Moonlight seems to be seeping with stereotypes: the tough black neighborhood, the drug dealers, and the drug addicted mother. But Jenkins puts those labels in the background. He focuses on the humanity surrounding these people. Despite being a drug dealer, Juan quickly becomes a father figure to Chiron and teaches him to open up. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” he says to him. Even Chiron’s mother doesn’t start out as a helpless crack addict; she’s introduced in scrubs, coming off of a long shift at the hospital. When Juan tries to drop off Chiron, she snatches him back in fear of him corrupting her son. But as the chapters go on, we see her motherly love slowly die and replaced with a need for substance.
Moonlight intertwines with the LGBT and coming of age genres but never fully plants itself into one. Jenkins focuses on making Chiron human but doesn’t particularly have him “grow up.” In the three chapters, we feel his painful silence as he grapples with his sexuality and his need for human interaction. We watch him try to talk with his childhood crush, Kevin while he spools off about sleeping with women. We hear the outside voices go quieter and quieter until they’re just white noise. Even with hip-hop music blasting in the background, it’s still eerily quiet.
The camerawork and cinematography are superb and worthy of accolades on their own. In the first chapter, the camera shrinks with Chiron to show how small he is in his terrifying world. There is also a beautiful beach sequence in where Juan teaches him how to swim. The camera seems to be hiding behind the waves, spying on this baptism-like scene. In the second chapter, when Chiron is getting beat up by bullies, the camera spins around and follows when he gets slammed to the ground. It’s our way of getting to know him intimately as we follow him through this difficult transition.
Jenkins’ telling of this story in 1980s Miami is poetic, gentle, and fluid. He illustrates this culture through subtle background details. While Chiron is preparing to take a bath, we see him boil water on the stove and use dish soap for bubbles. When a side character died, their funeral was simply mentioned in passing, never to be spoken of again.
Jenkins wanted audiences to see that there is much more going on in people’s lives than what’s shown on the outside. This film isn’t even about humanizing drug dealers or crack addicts; He shows that they were human to begin with. In the final chapter, we see Chiron as a grown man who has gone into the drug business. He sports a du-rag and golden teeth and deals with his employees in a threatening manner. But then we see, that Chiron hasn’t truly changed at all. He’s still that shy little boy who desires some sort of human connection. This subject is hardly explored in films (much less in African American communities) and will surely be a way to spark new conversations among audiences.