Moonlight is a bold move by Medicine for Melancholy director, Barry Jenkins. Adopting an unrealised, semi-autobiographical, 2003 drama project by 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 City of God, and infuse the picture with a beautifully Rococo, pastel palette. The effect jars perfectly. 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 is apt; what setting could better connote the fine line of romance and danger than one against moonlight?
A coming of age story at beating heart, Moonlight is divided into three chapters, each a fluidly overlapped – but clearly signalled – epoch in the life of the story’s protagonist, Chiron. ‘At some point,’ Chiron is told, ‘you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be’. The sole indicator of passing time here is the periodical shift in leading actor. In the first part – ‘Little’ – Alex Hibbert plays Chiron at his youngest, but a shy introvert; lonely, and abusively bullied from his peers and drug-using mother (Naomie Harris) alike. He finds solace however in Juan (Mahershala Ali – scene stealing), who takes him home to his own girlfriend – played by Hidden Figures’ Jangle Monáe. No saint himself, Juan is a dealer and embodies 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 Chiron’s mother and therein engineering the fall that will follow.
Ashton Sanders is the next to portray an older Chiron – ‘Chiron’ being 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 latent homosexuality. A relationship with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) 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, gained a beautiful layer of social development from its gimmick, Jenkins has selected his respective ‘Chiron’s masterfully, each one rising to the occasion with tremendous naturalism. Further still, the production values of Moonlight more than manage to convey a sense for the timeline’s peripheral journeys – Naomi Harris, in the performance of her career, is given a particularly believable, and wisely subtle, ageing makeover.
Behind the scenes, and pulling the strings with arch precision, Jenkins attracts due acclaim. 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 beyond control, particularly in Chiron’s adolescent years, to create the ever-constant risk of the lens losing focus. 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 the experience of a lifetime.