Moonlight is gorgeously crafted, masterfully acted, surprisingly timely, and demands to be watched and respected
It wasn’t until I got into my twenties that I became aware of what identity is. Identity is as much how you view yourself as what the world views you as. You may be a minority or gay or poor, but that doesn’t mean you have to identify as those things. It’s truly your experience that shapes your identity. Any LGBTQ+ person knows what it is to struggle with identity. Hell, anyone that is anything different from what society views as normal has struggled with identity. It’s a process that is as emotionally taxing as it is satisfying. Learning who you truly are and who you see yourself to be is one of the most liberating — sometimes heartbreaking — experiences. That’s what Moonlight really is about: identity. Not only the concept of identity, but the process of discovering, struggling, and ultimately accepting who you are.
Moonlight is split up into three parts that are named after the nicknames that our main character is called: Little, Chiron, and Black. In little, we meet young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as he is running away from a group of taunting classmates. Eventually, he finds shelter in a crack house and is soon discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him under his wing. Juan is an interesting character. He is the only character whose perspective we see outside of Chiron’s. This is an important choice because Juan is a character whose identity as a drug dealer directly contradicts his caring personality.
Eventually, Juan takes him under his wing along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). They become Chiron’s figurative parents while his real mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is on drugs or with random men. This part is about Chiron discovering his identity. Juan is there to assure him that there are other people out there like Chiron.
The second part of the film follows Chiron as a teenager as he struggles with his identity. At this point in his journey, he’s as confused and vulnerable as ever. He must deal with his mother falling further into drug addiction, his place as a punching bag for the school’s bullies, and his deepening confusion about his sexuality. However, maintaining a close eye on his subjects, Jenkins portrays Chiron’s struggle with a chilling intimacy that culminates in a chilling final shot.
In the final act, Chiron has transformed into Juan both physically, professionally, and mentally. There is even a scene where he gives a pep talk to a younger associate. However, this act is outlined by his acceptance of who he is. Ultimately, he must face his past ghosts and find a way to embrace it as part of his identity.
Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton were careful to shoot nearly the entire film in close-up. It’s a deeply personal story. However, Jenkins also doesn’t shy away from cinematic flair. In particular, composer Nicholas Brittell’s score mixes old school rap and hip hop with classical music to outline the beauty and savagery of growing up. The most surprising element though is the sound. It comes in and drops out in the perfect places. However, the most effective part of its design is when we hear dialogue, but all we see is a look in the actors’ faces.
I need to take a moment to talk about this incredible cast. First, the three actors that portray Chiron are revelations and bring entirely different perspectives on the role that come together to create this dynamic character. Alex Hibbert, who portrays the young Chiron, has this knowing look that captures his attempt to understand something that is just out of grasp. Teen Chiron, portrayed by Ashton Sanders, instead uses his physicality to show his inner battle to embrace who he truly is or what society wants him to be. Finally, Trevante Rhodes’ performance as the adult Chiron shows the character at his most emotionally vulnerable.
However, they are joined by a supporting cast that use their limited screentime to make huge impacts. Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother in all three parts of the film, is phenomenal throughout the film. But her third act monologue is one of the best-acted scenes of the year. Jharelle Jerome, who plays Chiron’s love interest Kevin as a teenager, is a surprisingly naturalistic performer. Mahershala Ali, though, towers in the film. Though his screen time is short, his impact is felt throughout the movie. It’s truly a masterclass in acting. Then there is Andre Holland who plays Kevin as an adult. His performance is perhaps one of the best of the year. Along with Rhodes, he created scenes that felt so natural and real that I was floored that this was actually a movie.
LGBTQ+ characters are marginalized in film. However, black gay characters are completely in the periphery. Moonlight bravely brings them into the forefront. It is easily a turning point for queer cinema and black cinema alike. In the end, though, Moonlight is a love letter to the people that struggle with their identity and sometimes feel isolated. It works as both a comfort and a glimmer of hope. But that’s not to take away from the craft of the film. The only way to describe Moonlight is as art. It’s pure, unadulterated art. It’s storytelling at it’s best. It’s filmmaking at it’s best. It’s romantic, emotional, and, most importantly, a film that needs to be seen.