Moonlight, opening October 28 at the Embarcadero and November 4 at the Shattuck, is Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary film adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. A key sequence in the film has two teenagers experimenting with their sexuality on a Miami beach in the moonlight.
But first, Jenkins’ film introduces the main character, Chiron, as a 9-year old boy (Alex Hibbert). Nicknamed “Little,” he is escaping from bullies at school who threaten to “kick his faggot ass.” Hiding out in a dope hole, he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer. Juan takes Little home to his girlfriend Teresa ( Janelle Monáe). Although Little doesn’t speak much, he does eat. When Juan returns Little to his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), she is determined not to have Juan help raise her son. Paula, it is soon revealed, is one of Juan’s customers.
Nevertheless, Juan does serve as a kind of father figure to the young boy. A very tender scene has Juan teaching Little how to swim in the ocean, “baptizing” him. And in a very powerful moment that follows, Juan tells Little, “At some point, you have to decide for yourself who you are going to be. You can’t have anyone else make that decision for you.” These words resonate throughout the film as Chiron’s transformation from youth to adult consists of many episodes in which he is forced to confront his true nature.
What is also particularly compelling about Moonlight is how many of the characters internalize, rather than express, their emotions. Jenkins deftly captures the unspoken empathy that exists between the characters. Moreover, Jenkins’ film allows viewers to understand the lives of his characters and why they matter.
Another character who has a key relationship with Little is Kevin ( Jaden Piner). Helping Little prove he isn’t “soft,” Kevin wrestles with him in the grass, and the sexual tension between these two young men, which plays out over the course of the film, is palpable.
Act 2 of Moonlight focuses on Chiron (Ashton Sanders), now a teenager, who seems to be living in constant fear. His mother’s drug habit has escalated out of control, and in a particularly uncomfortable scene, she demands money from her son. Chiron is still being bullied at school. He also has erotic dreams about Kevin ( Jharrel Jerome). Before long, the boys spend an evening at the beach that involves the boys kissing and more.
It is what transpires after this romantic encounter that moves Moonlight into its third and arguably most compelling act. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has now assumed Kevin’s nickname for him, “Black.” When he gets a call out of the blue from Kevin (André Holland), Black meets his old friend in a diner where Kevin works. As the men reconnect, Moonlight becomes transcendent.
It would spoil the pleasures of this intimate, deeply affecting film to discuss too many of the details, in part, because so much of the film’s action is internal, or happens off screen. One character disappears without explanation, allowing audiences to determine his or her fate for themselves. Other scenes, such as Paula yelling at her son, are presented twice, to emphasize and magnify their importance. But Jenkins seems less interested in plot than he is about creating a raw space that conveys the film’s potent themes about power and masculinity.
Moonlight shrewdly investigates what it means to be black and gay and in a world that revolves in and around drug culture. The film’s sensitive moments, such as Little preparing a bath for himself, or Chiron getting a lesson on how to make a bed from Teresa, or even the way Kevin and Black express themselves in their body language sitting across from each other in a diner, convey tremendous emotion and reveal so much about the characters. Likewise, Juan may be a tough drug dealer, but he practically melts when 9-year-old Little looks up at him and begins asking a series of tough questions, starting with, “What’s a faggot?”
Jenkins is not afraid to explore what makes Chiron cry, but he also includes a shocking act of violence that proves to be a catalyst in Chiron’s maturation. Seeing the shy, confused child and the haunted teen transform into the adult Black, who still grapples with his same-sex desires and deciding who he is, is remarkable and revelatory. All three of the actors playing this one character are indelible in the role.
If Jenkins’ film has a drawback, it is that the Teresa and Paula characters are, respectively, mother/saint and crack whore stereotypes. These women are not very nuanced, and that detracts from the film’s overall impact. But this is a minor complaint. Moonlight is an incredibly moving, necessary, and empowering story about being an African American gay man.
© 2016 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer