Opening March 9, 2017
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Writing credits: Barry Jenkins
Principal actors: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monáe, Jharrel Jerome
Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a sensitive boy, who grows up in an all-black housing project in Miami in the 1980s. The film, divided into three parts, follows Chiron from childhood through to adulthood, and in each section he’s played by a different actor. Nicknamed “Little” by the neighborhood kids who bully him, the young Chiron (Hibbert) rarely utters more than a few words. He’s befriended by Juan (Ali), a drug dealer in the neighborhood who, it turns out, sells crack to Chiron’s addict mother Paula (Harris), who mostly leaves him to fend for himself. Realizing how lost and lonely Chiron is, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Monáe) welcome Chiron into their home. Juan becomes a mentor to Chiron, serving as a surrogate father figure, giving him love and protection. But Juan can’t protect Chiron from the pain that surrounds him, especially as the boy realizes that he’s gay. In an unforgettable scene, Juan and Teresa gently answer Chiron’s question of what a “faggot” is, choosing each word thoughtfully, careful to show the delicate boy that they understand the anguish and confusion behind his question.
In the second part of the movie, the teenage Chiron (Sanders) reconnects with a childhood friend, Kevin (Jerome), who awakens him to the possibility of happiness. They share a moment of intimacy, but Chiron’s bliss is short-lived: he’s almost immediately victimized by a school bully, who preys on him because of his gentle vulnerability. By the time the third section begins, Chiron (Rhodes) has grown up and put his painful past behind him. He’s now almost unrecognizable, beefed up and hard, living in Atlanta and following in Juan’s footsteps selling drugs. But with an unexpected phone call from Kevin, Chiron is drawn home to Miami to see what alternate life might await.
Moonlight is a remarkably poetic artwork about a young man full of longing and desire for connection, painfully aware of how different he is from those around him. Chiron is mired in a world of violence, poverty, and prejudice, trying to construct an identity that he can safely inhabit. The movie is based on a play by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, who, like Chiron, is homosexual. McCraney and the director, Barry Jenkins, both black men, grew up in the same Miami housing project where Chiron’s story plays out, and the movie blends together autobiographical details of both men’s lives, which, undoubtedly, lends the movie much of its painful authenticity. This incredibly raw movie is so full of pent-up pain, abuse, and loathing that, at moments, it’s almost unbearably difficult to watch. But the cast is so excellent across the board, and the story so bursting to be told, that – mercifully – it’s the sense of hope, of redemption, of possibility that lingers. ( )