What does it mean to be Black in America today? That question, too big for any one film to answer, serves as the driving inquiry in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a beautifully intimate character study that argues in no uncertain terms that the African-American identity is far too complex to be reduced to the flimsy stereotypes so often presented on-screen.
“Black” isn’t just a race, community, or color, but one of three names by which a sexually conflicted young South Florida man allows himself to be called in a film that’s ultimately about taking control of one’s own identity. That’s exactly what Jenkins himself is doing by delivering a film so firmly committed to capturing the black experience, resulting in a socially conscious work of art as essential as it is insightful. A natural extension of his garrulous San Francisco-set debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” the director’s beautifully nuanced, subtext-rich second feature is no less intellectually engaged, but proves far more trusting in audiences’ ability to read between the lines.
Told in three chapters over the course of about 16 years, “Moonlight” (adapted from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short, poetically titled theater piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) is one of the first post-“Boyhood” indies to take a serious look at a young man’s evolution over time — though Jenkins employs the traditional strategy of casting different actors to portray Chiron (whose name is pronounced like that of the former Israeli prime minister) and his peers at the different stages of their lives. The film begins with Chiron at age 10, picks up later in high school, and then skips forward to reveal the man he has become, thick-skinned and tough on the outside but still searching on the interior. “Moonlight” would have been ghettoized as a LGBTQ film had it been released a decade earlier, considering that dimension of his self-discovery. Today, no real category applies, and with any luck, this resonant film will connect with audiences in a more universal way.
Even before Chiron is old enough to understand the notion of homosexuality, his classmates seem to have labeled him as such. The other kids openly torment the runt-like child (played by Alex Hibbert at this stage), whom they call “Little” and dismiss as “soft,” chasing him to a local crack den, where he’s discovered by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, breathing humanity into a stereotype). Since Little refuses to speak, Juan has no choice but to bring him back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, a doll-like beauty with remarkable inner strength) — and in so doing, takes his place as a sort of surrogate father and role model.
Little’s actual home is a run-down townhouse he shares with his mother (Naomie Harris), an overworked nurse who eventually succumbs to the hollow escape of drugs. Informed by both Jenkins’ and McCraney’s own Miami upbringing, this environment may be gritty, but it’s not “Precious.” When he wants to take a warm bath, Little is obliged to heat the water on the stove and use dish soap for bubbles — just one of many details that lends texture to the portrait, which ditches the superficial faux-naturalism of turbulent handheld cinematography (à la “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) for seductive Steadicam lensing, reinforced by a vigorous gush of classical music (courtesy of composer Nicholas Britell) at regular intervals. “Moonlight” feels less like a young man’s troubled memories than a dream-like evocation of a specific time and place, which makes its leaps in time easier to accept.
Looking only vaguely like the actor who has played Little, Ashton Sanders assumes the role of Chiron in the movie’s middle portion, portraying him as a scrawny, introverted-looking 16-year-old. Some things have changed — Juan has disappeared from the picture, though there’s always a spare bed available at Teresa’s place, which is handy, considering how strung out Chiron’s crack-addicted mom is these days — but Chiron is as lonely as ever, and the bullies remain the same. Their taunts have taken on a more aggressively homophobic edge, though Chiron still lacks certainty about his own identity. In one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he finally takes the initiative to explore those urges, with his womanizing friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It’s a revealing irony that his peers, who will themselves spend much of their lives battling with the prejudice of being pigeonholed as black men from the projects, are so quick to force one of their own into a subcategory.
“Moonlight” challenges easy stereotypes at every turn. Juan may be a drug dealer — he is even forced to confront his own ethics when he realizes that Chiron’s mother is one of his customers — but Jenkins’ depiction of the role drugs play in the black community is far more complex than we’re accustomed to seeing, and in the final segment, we’re surprised to discover Chiron’s own connection to the phenomenon. Yes, drugs destroy, but they also offer as escape, both to the users (temporarily disconnecting them from their everyday pressures) and those who sell them (offering financial independence and power).
The triptych’s final installment is set roughly a decade later. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now going by the nickname Kevin gave him back in school, Black, is completely unrecognizable, though it would be a mistake to spoil the specific ways in which he has changed. The important thing is that Chiron’s evolution is not yet complete, and while this last third introduces notes of tragedy as it reveals how the character has grappled with questions of his own masculinity, it provides Chiron with a series of choices that ultimately put him in control of his own future.