Initial release: 21 October 2016 (USA)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenplay: Barry Jenkins
It’s easy to fall into cliches or simplify when looking at the African-American experience. Bary Jenkins’ Moonlight doesn’t make those mistakes, however. His film portrays a man at three stages in his life. The man, Chiron, doesn’t fit stereotypes. We first meet Chiron at age 10, pick up his story later in high school, and then fast forward to reveal the man he has become.
Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is trying to understand his sexuality at all three points. He is different and his classmates realise this early on and bully him because of it. His home life in a Miami project is tough. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict and prostitute. His role models are Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Juan is a local drug pusher. Yet Juan is a complex character who plays a sympathetic, strong surrogate Father for Chiron. Juan is not a bad person just a person who does bad things. None of the characters in this film are reduced to being symbols. Moonlight deals with the reality that drugs give dealers power and financial independence. Juan tries to teach Chiron the importance of not letting others label you or impose an identity on you. Chiron starts to reject his dismissive nickname ‘Little’ and even question why people give others nicknames.
Chiron (played now by Ashton Sanders) is still being bullied as a teenager. He is also still developing his identity (a major theme of the film). He has his first erotic experience with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). After this, he also starts to fight back against his tormentors.
About ten years later we see Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) again. He is physically much changed. Gone is the scrawny teenager being dominated by others. Instead, we see a physically powerful and dominant man. Yet this man is still grappling with his sexuality and trying to understand what it is to be a man. When he visits Florida from his new base in Georgia the scene is set for him to confront the question of who he really is.
I’m conscious that what I’ve written above may make this film sound depressing or indicate that its appeal would be limited. Neither would be true. Moonlight, despite what could be a bleak subject matter, is a positive film. Moonlight is a socially conscious film which shows the power of empathy and love. It is beautifully filmed and has at times a dream like quality. Even though it deals with a gay man coming to understand his sexuality it has a message that is more universal. It can’t be reduced to an ‘issue’ film about race or sexuality. At its core, the story is about how we, as humans but more specifically men, develop our identity. That’s why this film has general appeal and should and is being watched by a wide audience.
Moonlight made me think about how art can open our hearts and minds and give us a glimpse into the reality for others. Here I was sitting in a cinema in Edinburgh watching a compelling story of a black kid growing up in Miami. It’s a fine testament to the creators of this film that I was gripped by his story, drawn-in and never felt alienated or estranged.Nor did I ever want to judge but simply to understand.
I’d go further and say that not only does Moonlight deserve to be watched but because of its depth it deserves to be watched more than once. The list of films you can say that about isn’t that long!
Reviewed by Pat Harrington