When asked about the difficulties of ‘coming out’, James Baldwin once said ‘the discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatised society’. I had anticipated Barry Jenkins’ film, an adaptation of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s unperformed play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, to be angst-ridden, painful, viscerally traumatic. Moonlight does indeed ache with longing and regret and, as Baldwin said, the causes of that trauma are suggested from its backdrop: a deprived neighbourhood in America and the societal institutions that treats black men as deficient. But alongside this, I was also affected by the sheer tenderness and warmth that emanated from the screen and draws you slowly into a tragic ‘coming-of-age’ story of young man who is born poor, black and gay. Despite its tenderness and soft humour, the film avoids easy sentimentality while challenging any distorting stereotypes. Markedly, Moonlight manages to balance those pressing social concerns with a verbal and visual lyricism that never overpowers its perceptive character-study.
Growing up in the ghettos of Miami, Florida, young Chiron (referred to dismissively as ‘Little’) struggles between the local bullies and a temperamental mother (Naomie Harris) who is slowly deteriorating under a serious drug addiction. Protective one moment and then abusive the next, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) finds no stability at home. Rescued one day from his tormentors, local drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes Chiron under his wing and into his home with his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae). Here, offered safety, Chiron begins to wonder about his burgeoning sexuality, his growing affection for his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) and his place as a black man in American society. I was initially reminded of Sheldon Cardis’ 2012 film LUV (Learning Uncle Vincent), both from the repeated image of a young boy cycling the air with his hand out of a car window but more pointedly through the teaching of masculinity between a black boy and his surrogate father. In LUV, ’Unc’ Vincent (Common) is taut, despite his suave suit and straight-back, and trying to hold face as his illicit past catches up with him. His lessons to the young Woody (Michael Rainey Jr) are prescriptive, demanding that the boy adopt that same performance of external masculine strength and intimidation in the fight to attain capital and status. Where Cardis became ambivalent, even confused when presenting this masculine model, fortunately Jenkins is more searching and confident.
Ali’s Juan is a nurturing presence, though not without his own flaws, as he tries to teach Chiron self-determination, esteem and trust: “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be- can’t let no-one make that decision for you” he tells him after a swimming lesson in the Florida shoals. It is one of the many evocative moments of tenderness in the film, with Jenkins consciously emphasising touch, caress and feeling between the men throughout Moonlight. Not merely erotic, but loving and answering deeper needs. Furthermore, silent moments of what could be stinging revelations are allowed some well-observed humour. I remember laughing unexpectedly but poignantly when Juan asks whether young Chiron if he’s sure he’s gay, only to look at Theresa who stares straight back and nods, eyebrows creased as if to say ‘Oh, no doubt’. But it is not mocking humour, it rather suggests the time and security that Monae’s Theresa has given getting to know Chiron. These instances buoy the film joyously from its otherwise sombre atmosphere, taking the edge off the disquiet.
Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes hold the screen in each of their respective performances. Hibbert’s ‘Little’ sets us up perfectly for whats to come- a solitary, sad boy that is unable to look others in the eye and yet when he does, he is explicably defensive. His strained face a little too old, his small body a coil wound tight. This only intensifies with Sanders. With downcast head and hunched shoulders, Sanders brings out the adolescent angst as Chiron’s new support system begins to recede. A moment of vulnerability with his now teenage friend Kevin (Jharell Jerome) gives Sanders an opportunity to display his impressive physical and emotional range. His whole presence on-screen changes, the film lifts slightly and hopefully with him and we feel, almost exult, in his release. It doesn’t last. A poetic twist leaves Chiron beaten and bruised and descending into cold rage and self-hatred, broken eventually by the careless words of the school principal after the incident: ‘You’re a boy, you ain’t a man…else you would have those knuckle-heads sitting with you’. Finally, Rhodes’ muscular frame, gold teeth caps and affected coldness (now a gang-member known as ‘Black’) brings us to Chiron’s adulthood. Gone is the skinny kid with a backpack and eyes on the pavement, Rhodes’ Chiron is almost unrecognisable. Now he can look at people, but only with calculation and indifference. Rhodes’ performances is captivating as he fluctuates between a hardened posture and a tentative, fragile longing when reuniting years later with Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), now a family-man and chef in a local diner. Despite the divided structure, these three form create one fluid, naturalistic arc that allows no singular performance to eclipse the other.
No doubt inspired by McCraney’s use of poetry and symbolism in his Brother/Sister trilogy of plays, Jenkins’ writing and direction with James Laxton’s cinematography has a lyrical quality that underpins the shifting tones of the film. Though some moments can feel slightly florid and self-aware (‘You like the water, I bring the fire’ teenage Kevin tells Chiron on the beach, handing him a spliff). The recurring image of waves, the sea, the soft-focus and lighting create a serene ambience, an ease that is contrasted with the hurt often portrayed on-screen or interrupted by breaks of violence. Not only does it allow the film’s penultimate cafe scene between Chiron and Kevin to be quietly intimate and palpitating, but tempers a totalising tendency to read Moonlight as purely sociological. The widespread traumas facing black people in America today are mainly held in the background but still remain prevalent in the lives depicted on-screen. Mass incarceration, premature death, the social and physical deprivations that emerge from ‘ghettoisation’ and the ‘War on Drugs’ are all alluded to or sometimes, as with Harris’ brilliantly conflicting performance as Paula, foregrounded explicitly. Smaller hints reify this: a football made of ragged strips, Chiron’s bath of urn-boiled water, a heroin needle discovered in an abandoned project. These are not political issues writ large upon the screen in a general way, instead we realise these have specific, emotional consequences for the characters. It is the failure of societal institutions like education and societal forces which create the ghetto, appearing nebulous in Moonlight but are really ever-present, combined with those moments of vulnerability, safety and honesty denied to Chiron, that lead to his enclosure and despair.
During the same interview, Baldwin said ‘Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility’. This statement is true for much of Moonlight for the film’s intimacy is filled with both affection and trepidation. Moonlight has compelling nuance and insight into the struggle of identity with a sense of conviction in both its writing and performance. It is a beautiful but difficult work that left me not only reflective, but deeply moved.