Moonlight is a bold move by Medicine for Melancholy director, Barry Jenkins. Adopting the unrealised, semi-autobiographical, 2003 drama project of Tarell Alvin McCraney: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, as his inspiration; Jenkins’ film is a rejection of the hard line, socio-realist aesthetic, synonymous with depictions usually granted to similarly located films. Bringing to the production his own experiences as a child in Miami, Moonlight sees its director take the sun-kissed cinematography of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s equally tough City of God, and infuse the picture with a beautifully Rococo, pastel palette. The effect is a deeply jarring one. Grit and grime are painted in pinks, blues and greens which serve to express the visceral tension underlying this society within ‘the sunshine state’. The title here is an apt one, for what setting could better connote the fine line of romance and danger than one in moonlight?
The film is a coming of age story through and through: ‘At some point,’ Mahershala Ali’s Juan tells Chiron, ‘you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be’. Thus, Moonlight is divided into three chapters, each a fluidly overlapped – but clearly signalled – epoch in the life of the story’s protagonist, Chiron. The clearest indicator of this time in motion is that in each period a different actor takes this lead role. In the first part, ‘Little’, Alex Hibbert plays Chiron at his youngest in the film. Here Chiron is a shy introvert, lonely, and abusively bullied from his peers and drug-using mother (Naomie Harris) alike. He finds solace however when discovered hiding from his tormentors by Juan, who takes him home to his girlfriend – played by Hidden Figures’ Jangle Monáe. No saint himself, Juan is a dealer embodying the sensibilities of a Dickensian Mr Brownlow type, conjoined with the moral ambiguity of a Fagin figure. To make the situation worse, and more cruelly ironic, he is also the man supplying the boy’s mother and therein engineering the fall that will follow.
Ashton Sanders is the next to portray an older Chiron (‘Chiron’ being too the name of this second vignette), still at school and now even more violently and physically brutalised by those around him. If the first part presents the naiveté of childhood (‘What’s a faggot…Am I a faggot?’), the second brings Chiron into the confusion of adolescence and the mental dynamics within that as a boy coming to terms with his homosexuality. The relationship he has with one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome in this part) becomes now all the more complicated. It is Kevin that provides the title of the closing chapter in nicknaming Chiron ‘Black’.
The final performance comes from the, significantly more athletic, Trevante Rhodes, who is left to realise the emotional fallout of Chiron’s boyhood. It’s worthy at this point to give the Richard Linklater film Boyhood a mention. The two films follow familiar processions but it’s almost in mockery of Linklater’s twelve-year production that Moonlight instead utilises exceptional casting to pull off the same effect with a near same affect. Whilst Boyhood, it’s true, does gain a beautiful layer of social development via its gimmick, Jenkins has selected his respective ‘Chiron’s masterfully, each one rising to the occasion with a lovely naturalism. Furthermore, the production values of Moonlight more than manage to convey a sense for the timeline’s peripheral journeys – Naomi Harris is given a particularly believable, and wisely subtle, ageing makeover. Harris gives the performance of her career here, amid an ensemble that could all have received award season nominations for their roles. Most notable however is Ali who steals practically every one of his, comparatively few, scenes in the film.
Behind the scenes meanwhile, and pulling the strings with arch precision, Jenkins deserves levels of acclaim that – it’s a sore truth – he’s unlikely to receive for the film. The camerawork in Moonlight is both artful and earthy; it’s a style that manages to balance breathtaking cinematography with a genuinely tangible physicality. Shots are tight, but alive with motion and often spiral out of control, particularly in Chiron’s adolescent years, to create the ever-constant risk of the lens losing focus. There are sequences in Moonlight that made me want to squeal, such was their effervescence.
Following the life of a black, African-American and gay young man may seem a niche venture, yet Moonlight is at once both a unique passage down an under-explored avenue of cinema and an entirely universal story. Is there anyone who cannot identify with the confusion of self-identification in a world determinately setting out the terms of who you are supposed to be? Black/white, gay/straight, male/female, it’s all tediously arbitrary. Moonlight is an experience of life and, I promise you, the experience of a lifetime.