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‘Moonlight’: Barry Jenkins’ moving coming-of-age masterpiece

Written By | Dec 15, 2016

WASHINGTON, December 14, 2016 – Released in November after its September world premiere screening at the Telluride Film Festival, “Moonlight” is the second feature film brought to life by writer/director Barry Jenkins. It closes a gap of eight years that began with Jenkins’ well-received 2008 debut film, “Medicine for Melancholy.”

Based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” continues Jenkins’ fascination with identity politics, but it takes a different track this time around, turning inward to offer reflections on the life experience of his gay central character, Chiron, and how the emotional turmoil around him shapes his life.

The film shares Chiron’s coming-of-age experiences during three different stages in his life as a child and eventually a young man growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. To this end, Chiron is portrayed in the film by three fine actors. Alex Hibbert portrays “Little Chiron” as a child, Ashton Sanders portrays him in his teen years and Trevante Rhodes was cast as the adult Chiron.

The primary focus of Jenkins’ film is on the way Chiron comes to terms with his sexuality in spite of various forces more or less conspiring punish, abuse and trap him in a world he’s clearly not meant for.

Chiron’s unending unease is apparent from the moment he’s introduced to us as he flees from a group of boys who hurling homophobic slurs at him and threatening him with worse until he finds refuge in an abandoned apartment complex. He remains there hiding in silence before Juan (Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood crack dealer, comes along to offer him both a meal and sanctuary from his tormenters at his own house.

Chiron is a lost spirit, cut off from life itself. Although Juan tries to pierce the emotional exoskeleton Chiron has built up, he’s thwarted at every turn. That’s because Chiron has no real reason to trust him, essentially viewing Juan for the most part as just another player in a world that has consistently failed him—something he expresses through his blank expression and frequent silences. He’s at rock bottom, having been let down by everyone around him, from his contemporaries to his own mother.

Once Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) finally get Chiron to open up even a bit, the film begins to explore his pain and his crisis of identity more fully, including the final interaction he has with his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) the last time he sees her. This and other brutal images highlight how he’s been conditioned into his silence his entire life.

While it’s hard to miss the fact that Chiron is gay, at this point in the film, he’s being attacked more for his sensitivity and inability to “fit in” than anything else. Each attack hits him harder mainly because he’s being told again and again that what is true about him makes him a defective person.

It isn’t until Juan—who is just as flawed as Chiron’s mother but more self-aware—interacts with him with an open heart that Chiron feels confident enough to act on his own behalf, even though, ironically, that results in his walking out on Juan.

The second act of “Moonlight” follows Chiron (now portrayed by Ashton Sanders) in his mid-teens, where we find him just as alone as he was as a child. He’s still confronted with bullying, this time more intense than before. Making matters worse, most of his support structures are either gone or have faded at this point.

Chiron is now hopelessly alone and adrift. Even when he tries to find solace in Teresa, there’s a palpable distance between the two of them, with Juan now out of the picture. Even in this short interlude, Teresa’s warmth doesn’t connect with him. As if to emphasize this, the two never really appear together in a single shot.

His otherness, his “alone-ness,” is reinforced by his uneasy and negative relationships at school. His peers tend to resemble wolves in sheep’s clothing, while those omnipresent bullies – most notably Terrel (Patrick Decile) – come at Chiron, capitalizing on his vulnerability to torture him, while twisting Chiron’s inherent queer identity to ostracize and isolate him even further.

Every camera shot presents a character or characters as invaders coming into Chiron’s life picture to the point where it’s impossible for him to know if they are friend or foe. He tends to believe the latter, drawing on his experiences from childhood.

Chiron’s one source of solace is his childhood friend and part-time confidant Kevin, played at this point in the film by Jharrel Jerome. Even though Kevin is the one person who treats him as an equal, Chiron is still on edge about their friendship because, though he won’t admit it to himself, Chiron is in love with his friend. It’s here where Chiron finally bursts out in more way than one.

“Moonlight” is Barry Jenkins’ window into the world of a gay black boy who’s trying to come to terms with his identity. It also explores Miami’s black culture, as well as how Chiron fits into it. But what sets this film apart isn’t just the approach Jenkins takes when tackling an underrepresented social phenomenon, but the way he handles it with care and nuance.

Nothing highlights this more than the relationship that develops between Chiron and Kevin, the latter being revealed as a complex character in his own right, something we learn more about through their eventual sexual encounter on the beach. It’s a scene of unrivaled tenderness and intimacy. This carefully developed sequence is genuinely a thing of beauty, detailing how Kevin guides Chiron through what is actually his first sexual experience.

Taken from this angle, this scene helps make Kevin’s ultimate betrayal of Chiron both understandable and tragic, yet another element that makes “Moonlight” such a complex film. Everything that ultimately drives Chiron from Liberty City hinges on Kevin. But the twists and turns in the story reveal deeper truths.

As it transpires, it’s that dogged bully Terrel who uses Kevin to get at Chiron. A more two-dimensional film would attribute Terrel’s relentless animosity to his overriding hatred of Chiron’s gayness. But in the end, he, Kevin and Chiron are just kids poorly navigating adolescence.

What Terrel really hates about Chiron is actually Chiron’s sensitivity, not so much his homosexuality. In turn, Chiron isn’t equipped with the skills enabling him to cope with anything adverse in his world. With Terrel cleverly exploiting this emotional and life-skills mismatch, Kevin complicates the picture, allowing himself to fight Chiron under the ruse that it’s a game. The result: Chiron is pummeled by everyone else, finally forcing him to lash out in a manner that eventually submarines his remaining teen years.

Deftly exploiting the passage of time, Jenkins smooths his film’s three distinct acts into an almost seamless narrative. Case in point: the film’s second chapter concludes with Chiron being shipped off to jail after being driven to a violent act as the story line naturally morphs into Act III, which finds the adult Chiron—now portrayed by Trevante Rhodes)—driving around in his car, now fully engaged in the drug culture that had earlier trapped both his mother and Juan.

The notion of identity that had been explored earlier in the film comes full circle for Chiron at this point. What’s key here is how he has misinterpreted the advice Juan gave him in the film’s first chapter. Instead of allowing who he is to take shape naturally, Chiron chose to take a shortcut, created an essentially new, yet somehow inauthentic identity from whole cloth. He builds it primarily because he thinks this newly self-manufactured identity won’t be taken advantage of as easily as original identity was when he was a child.

The new image he’s crafted is taken from what he’s learned on the streets. No longer living in Liberty City and thus in complete control of his narrative, he’s now a no-nonsense drug dealer. Even though he seems to have a knack for it, however, this “New Chiron” doesn’t feel like the more self-confident Juan. Rather, it’s Chiron’s somewhat inorganic impression of his now-absent mentor.

Despite its outward effectiveness, the fragility of the New Chiron becomes more obvious when a call out of the blue from one-time pal Kevin puts him on edge. Going to see Kevin, back at the still dangerous turf of Liberty City, puts all his reconstructive efforts at risk, but from an emotional standpoint, not a physical one.

The interaction between Chiron and Kevin (now played by Andre Holland) is what drives the intense climax of “Moonlight.” As the one person who most truly understood the younger Chiron, Kevin is the one person who can still see right through his old friend’s new persona.

It would have been easy for Jenkins to load this scene with the usual, obvious fireworks. But instead, he shoots the entire scene with exquisite care and nuance, highlighting the old tenderness between the two. The palpable nervousness between the two is sweetly alluring, promising to leave them both in a better place.

What Barry Jenkins has crafted in “Moonlight” is an intimate look at human sexuality. It is not only a love story between Chiron and Kevin, but also the discovery of genuine love and its power by someone who’s spent his entire life oppressed, emotionally and physically, by a world that arguably didn’t deserve him.

In “Moonlight,” Jenkins joins an uncanny skill for storytelling and structural integrity with what can only be described as a magical cinematic beauty, ranging from the way every shot is framed to the lighting that captures the emotions and personality of character and community in various setting. All are wrapped into a seamless narrative flow, transforming this film into a quiet masterpiece that should not be overlooked.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.