This is a miracle of a movie that never strays from its unique story, and through that achieves the most powerful evocation of a more universal struggle: who you are, in the smallest of moments, is who you is.
There’s a song that plays at the very beginning of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Before anyone is seen, over the company credits only, we hear the refrain of Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every N****r Is a Star’. It’s a cut that’ll be familiar to anyone who heard Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, where it is also the very first thing the listener hears; the film the song originally came from, and its soundtrack album, were flops upon their initial release, but the power of Gardiner’s words has resonated long in underground music circles.
The song is a defining choice for a film where the few white faces are confined to the background, in favour of African American characters. We don’t see stories like this, with these people, nearly often enough. Maybe it’s because we have too narrow a definition of what a ‘star’ is – because if you’re not a model citizen, maybe you’re just not trying hard enough. Maybe you don’t matter. Moonlight is here to say otherwise: every black face here matters, no matter who they choose (or are pushed) to be.
It’s the tale of Chiron, an outsider that starts the film as a boy of 9, and ends it at the age of 26. It’s about the people in his life that shape him, and how the specific circumstances of his community of Miami, Florida, affect his life and those around him. Make no mistake, that whilst the themes of the film are in many ways universally affecting, it’s the unique pressures of black masculinity and community that shape the film into something truly special.
Part of the magic is all in how the camera places Chiron within his surroundings. Adapted from a play named In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, it would be incredibly easy for the film to feel stagey, especially given the delineated three-act structure. Yet in the very first scene, a one-r wraps us into the world of Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a drug dealer checking on a street dealer, before school kids barrel past him, in pursuit of our protagonist. James Laxton’s cinematography masterfully emphasises isolation. He follows Chiron from behind, or moves away, leaving him in the background; sometimes his camera becomes Chiron, hypnotically following those that wish him harm, holding us in that moment; we’re Chiron even when he’s surrounded by classmates, dancing in a classroom, our eyes darting to find our man, to find ourselves. Even when the picture is stationary, the story plays out in close-ups, restricting our understanding of the scene to the few choice elements in the frames: from the bland white walls, cluttered mess, and red lights of Chiron’s mother’s home (Naomie Harris), to the blue and turquoise in the background of Juan and Teresa’s (Janelle Monáe) place.
This disorienting, at times entirely impressionistic visual (not to mention sonic) style allows Jenkins to build a headspace for us, while the story remains dictated by the minutiae of characters’ actions – their strides, a grin, a glance. This relies heavily on the actors playing Chiron across his life, at age 9, 16, and 26 – and they’re spot-on. Alex R. Hibbert as ‘Little’ is fragile, seemingly resigned to his existence, with only a handful of joys and a lot of confusion; this increases in ‘Chiron’ at age 16, through Ashton Sanders. A wiry and deeply lonely teenager, isolated from his familiar community through loss. Every time he resists his victimisation, it costs him. Hibbert’s performance is impressive for how it subverts the often woodenness of other child actors to communicate his fear; Sanders astonishes because of how much the fight to simply be takes from him, allowed intimacy in only one or two moments.
The connection between these two performances is easy to understand, but the ten-year jump that takes us from the skinny Sanders to Trevante Rhodes’ muscular, marginally more vocal ‘Black’ is a shock. Rhodes is playing a performance of masculinity as Chiron’s survival mechanism, and he’s good at it – so good that it makes one wonder how much this performances truly reflects his interior. But upon re-encountering Kevin, his high-school friend, his reticence takes hold, as he literally sheds the façade. It’s a breath-taking turn, that explicitly challenges ideas about black masculinity, and the implications of silence.
The entirety of the cast deserves praise for that matter: from the authentic warmth that glows out of Janelle Monáe’s Teresa, to the layered turn of selfishness and self-loathing shown by Naomie Harris; how Mahershala Ali just keeps getting better with every new role, his drug dealing Juan offering a glimpse of a freer future for Chiron, who is nonetheless reacting to the impositions of his masculinity; how each iteration of Kevin is perfectly written and played to best bounce off the respective Chiron, none more so than André Holland’s effortless care and confidence as the 26-year old diner cook.
Every element of a film can matter, but that ideal rarely feels as true as it does with Moonlight. From the heartbreaking minimalism of Nicholas Britell’s score, the specificity of costuming and production design, and the magnificent lighting choices that make every black character (in other words, the entire cast) stunning, whether blue in the titular beams reflected by the waves of the Miami coast, or harshly reflecting a fluorescent light in a bathroom: all the parts matter. Because all the parts that make Chiron’s life what it is matter. Yet the greatest of pain can’t erase the power in the smallest intimacy, Jenkins says: those final lines, the words that reveal a person’s heart and their deepest struggle, can bridge the gap between the past and the present, and might just save their future.
Moonlight (2017), directed by Barry Jenkins, is distributed in the UK by Altitude. Certificate 15.