Directed by Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is a light of subtlety, of beauty, of the partly understood, secret and the half-hidden. Contrast it with the brazen sunlight of an impoverished and drug-ridden suburb of Miami, and you have the heart of this film. Chiron, played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert, is a solitary, diffident child, and for good reason. We soon find out that his single mother (a terrifying Naomie Harris), is a junkie, unstable, un-motherly, physically and emotionally demanding. Most of his life is played out against the harsh glare and hard edges of his neighbourhood, with his mother’s lack of care and violent outbursts, and school, where machismo rules and his gentleness leads him to be labelled ‘gay’. When he hides from bullies he’s discovered by local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him home to his wife, and their house becomes an escape haven for Chiron.
Over time Juan becomes a father figure, giving him self-confidence and among other things teaching him how to swim. Blue suffuses the screen as Chiron learns to trust in someone, and the sea and the beach with its softened light becomes the centre of sweetness for the boy, a passing-on of the side of masculinity not represented elsewhere in Chiron’s environment. But, because nothing is straightforward, in this film as in life, Juan is also Chiron’s mother’s drug supplier. Welcome to the world of complexity and flawed humanity.
We next meet Chiron as a skinny teenager (Ashton Sanders), still a target of the bullies in an increasingly macho culture, his life and dreams merging together in an almost unbearable cacophony of ugliness. His friendship with easy-going Kevin develops into love, but almost immediately the hard rules of tough street life take all that away in an act of betrayal. Chiron’s third appearance is as an almost unrecognisable, taciturn, bulked-up young man (Trevante Rhodes), a new version of his father substitute in that he himself is now a dealer. But his relationship with Kevin is about to resurface. The final scenes are magic, low key, conveying the sad awkwardness of love and desire with the slightest of looks and movements, culminating in a scene of enormous tenderness .
While it’s well-known that this film is primarily, and importantly, about the difficulties of being gay in the macho working class black communities of America, it is about so much more too – trust, loyalty, betrayal, ambiguity, and how all individuals have many different aspects inside them, and change and yet do not, the young Chiron still evident in a slight inclination of the head, as well as his inner vulnerability. It’s a film of great grace, universal as well as specific to its time and place.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2017