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Moonlight - 2016

Moonlight - 2016

Director(s): Barry Jenkins

Writer(s): Barry Jenkins (screenplay) / Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)

Cinematography by: David Raedeker

Editor(s): Helle le Fevre

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes and André Holland


I saw Barry Jenkins' Moonlight back in 2016 when it was making its theatrical run - I remember walking out with the crowd and nobody speaking as if the waves were still crashing down on us. I also remember telling my wife that while it was one of the best films of the year, I would probably never see it again (since it took so much out of me). Well, last night my insomnia kicked in, and as I was beginning my ritual of scrolling through the limited movie selection of Netflix, the image of Ali in the water with Hibbert made want to hit play. While this time around, I still found the film one of if not the best film of that year, I saw more beauty within the ugly reality depicted.

The story is broken into three acts, chronicling the childhood adolescence and adulthood of a young, African-American, gay man growing up in the rough neighborhoods of Miami. The first act (i. Little) we meet Chiron (Hibbert), bullied by his classmates due to his height, shyness, and sensitivity. A local drug dealer, Juan (Ali), takes him under his wing as his drug addict mother, Paula (Harris), is rarely involved in his life. The second act (ii. Chiron), we see Chiron (Sander) now a skinny, lengthy teenager, still being bullied by all his peers - all but one, Kevin (Jerome). Their relationship evolves and one night at the beach marks Chiron for the rest of his life, and so does a day at school when he finally fights back against his bullies. And the third and final act (iii. Black) Chiron (Rhodes), a grown man, is now dealing drugs in the streets of Atlanta - adapting his persona to mirror his old high school bullies and his father figure (Juan), to survive in the streets. One night he receives a call from Kevin (Holland), reopening past wounds, and feelings - making him return to Miami to reconnect with his mother and friend.


Re-watching this film, I was beyond impressed at how dense Jenkins' screenplay is - filled to the brim with themes of masculinity, sexual identity, parental figures, and love. Making Chiron's experience, while singular to him, universal to all audiences - allowing them to grab on to one of the themes they identify with and use it as a doorway into Chiron's psyche. The structure of each act makes it that you are left wanting more, especially from the relationship between Juan and Chiron, but the broad strokes it paints allows the audience to fill in the blanks, making it a unique experience for every audience member. Jenkins does employ beautiful symmetry to critical moments in Chiron's life - Juan holding Chiron's head above water, teaching him to swim and giving him the father figure, he never had - Kevin holding his head at the beach while giving him the first (and only) sexual encounter. And Kevin holding his head in bead as Chiron cries, letting go off everything he has held on all his life. These embraces are very few and far between but can be string together like a constellation that forms who Chiron is inside.

Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton (If Beale Street Could Talk) camera movement feel like poetry, especially when they cut to intimate and raw close-ups of their actors in moments of both pain and intimacy. My favorite scene is the swimming lesson, as the water invades the frame, and you witness the love Juan has cultivated for Chiron. The acting across the board is excellent, with Ali, Rhode, and Holland being the standouts. Ali, as Juan manages to be intimidating and loving all without raising his voice once, and his emotional realization of what his "job" is doing to Chiron and his family hit me hard. Rhodes and Holland have an interaction at the restaurant Holland works in that are elevated by the body language, and silent stares between them - the unspoken conversation and their delivery are perfect. Also, I love Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan's girlfriend, as she plays this loving and understanding woman that helps both Juan and Chiron heal.


Quick note: the unsung hero of this film is casting director Yesi Ramirez – getting 6 actors to play two roles and all of them feeling like the same person is nothing to sneeze at, and she knocked it out of the park.

Moonlight is an emotionally draining look into not only how hard it is to be a gay man within the African American community, but what it is to be a "man."  The expectations of what masculinity is according to society create constraints around young men that do not fit the mold, isolating them from their peers, and destroying their self-confidence.  Jenkins way of telling Chiron's journey to self-discovery, within his tumultuous upbringing sheds light on a story rarely mentioned, and thanks to the multiple themes explored within the film, it's accessible to all viewers. Despite all the ugliness depicted inside the runtime, I walked away with the beautiful sense of hope delivered by the ending.


Moonlight is Why I Love Movies.

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