Moonlight. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic filmmaking.
Let’s find out why.
Act One – Little
The film, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, opens not with the main character, but to Mahershala Ali’s Juan, who single-handedly dominates the frame with his intensely masculine performance.
Masculinity is crucial to Moonlight; the story revolves around the life of a gay black boy in a poor neighbourhood of Miami. Everything in society is against him, even the perceptions of his people. The film opens with Juan because he is the exception to the hypermasculinity that pervades in Black society; he is a drug dealer who is sympathetic to a young and confused boy named Little. He recognises much of himself in the boy, who he instinctively knows is different from other boys.
Little, played by Alex Hibbert, in turn, develops a relationship with him that will come to define him. Juan is his chosen surrogate father, one who is intensely positive and accepting in a place that offers little acceptance. Little even identifies strongly with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, as a surrogate mother, as both parent figures represent stability and strength for the young boy, who is constantly bullied and ostracised for being different.
How Little meets Juan is also a symbolic of this, as he is chased into a drug den by a group of boys who mean to harm him. When Juan finds Little in that dark room, he finds not only a young boy who looks like him but a fellow social outcast trying to find a peaceful moment. And it is significant that Juan finds Little in a drug den, for if Juan is his father, then Little raising a used crack pipe to the light speaks of the truth that is his mother, Paula, played by the excellent Naomie Harris.
The traditional notion in portraying LGBT characters in literature and film is to have an outright rejection of homosexuality by the masculine, and a loving acceptance by the feminine. Moonlight upends this notion in one devastating scene when it is revealed that Juan has inadvertently become Paula’s dealer.
Juan, the loving and protecting father figure in Little’s life, is also the primary facilitator for Little’s sorrow, as his drugs have begun the slow and gut-wrenching annihilation of Paula’s character. The scene ends with Juan and Paula trading verbal blows about the nature of Little’s upbringing, with Paula taunting Juan over Little’s homosexuality. The full devastation of this moment is unleashed in the following scene.
Little comes to Juan’s house one last time for the act, sitting down and keeping quiet. Something has happened to the boy that has undone all the quiet and patient work that Juan and Teresa have done to build up Little’s self-esteem. Something has forced him to regress back into the quiet and reclusive boy that the film started with.
And as Little finally speaks up and asks Juan two devastating questions about who they are, it is clear that Paula has done enough to disrupt their relationship forever.
That is the nature of abuse. Paula, whether it was under the influence of drugs or in her nature, controls and emotionally abuses Little with conflicting moments of love and hatred. Anyone with a loved one lost to substance abuse will attest that it is just that difficult for Little to hate Paula fully.
She is at once his loving mother and his worst tormentor. Lost in her demons, Paula is unfit to guide Little through the struggles of his sexual identity. He eventually becomes both her ward and her caregiver, and it is this parasitic relationship that she feeds off, always reminding him that he is not enough, and guilts him into loving her by blaming himself for her failures.
“You don’t love me no more,” she whispers to him in her drug-addled state, later in the second act. It is clear that Little, who is definitively Chiron by that point, does love his mother very much. And as a victim of abuse, he internalises the moment as she falls unconscious, mumbling, “You’re my only. You’re my only.”
Act Two – Chiron
When the film encounters Little again in the second act, he is a meek and gentle adolescent man in high school, played by Ashton Sanders. He no longer identifies with the name of Little. He is Chiron now.
But Chiron can never escape the truths of Little, and that becomes the central theme for the third act, while setting the stage for the dramatic turn of the second act, as he encounters the menacing actions of his assailants.
What was once minor ostracization and bullying has become cruel and oppressive harassment. Chiron’s darkest moments come in his subservience to his hypermasculine aggressors, who bully and mock him, going so far as to taunt him for Paula’s turn to prostitution to feed her drug habit. And when Chiron attempts to defend himself and his mother’s honour, the boys respond with menace, leaving Chiron helpless and vulnerable.
He even tries to react to his aggressors by going after them with clenched fists, but his hesitation in following through with this is absolute, as he quickly stops himself from moving forward to attack them. And so for Chiron, it has always been a case of too Little, too late.
But there is a saving grace for Chiron in his relationship with Kevin, played by Jarrell Jerome. They met as young boys in the first act, where an easy friendship quickly developed between them. But there was something different about it back then as well.
What was once a playful bonding of boys with similar interests has now infused with an undercurrent of sexual and romantic tension. Chiron gazes with desire at Kevin as the young men talk and joke, and it is clear that Kevin’s bravado and showmanship in the presence of Chiron is a facade. While Kevin may indeed have experienced the tales he recounts to Chiron, his exaggerations of events and his willingness to interact with Chiron speak of deeper intentions.
And that intention is finally expressed in an evening on the beachfront that means so much to Chiron. Their desire for each other unveils as their tension erupts and in their intimacy, Chiron finds love and acceptance.
It is ultimately tragic that Kevin becomes the vehicle in which Chiron transforms into the hardened man of the third act. In the film’s shocking turn, Chiron’s hypermasculine bullies turn to Kevin to enact their cruelty on the young man.
Kevin is forced into perhaps the defining peer pressure ultimatum that afflicts any young man confronting the decision between right and wrong; either he refuses the bullies’ demands to assault Chiron, or risks himself being outed as having concern for Chiron, and by extension, outing himself as bisexual.
He chooses the former, and in the brutal scene that follows, Chiron’s first and only experience with romantic love is torn away from him, and his innocence severely beaten out of his gentle character.
The beating bears wounds on his face that leave deep scars on his psyche, and as part of that transformation, the man raising his brutalised face from the ice-water bath is no longer the meek adolescent we have cringed and wept for.
He is now Chiron Black, and he responds to this moment of savagery by completing the cycle of violence inflicted on him in a single moment of consequence-filled violence.
And as the second act comes to its close, with Chiron being hauled off in a police car, we see one last moment shared between him and Kevin, gazing at each other from beyond the divide, now lost from each other in the steady passage of time.
Act Three – Black
The third act opens with Trevante Rhode’s Chiron Black waking up from a recurring nightmare. It is the one that has never left him, that of his primary fear and darkest memory. It is him as Little, staring mutely at his mother, Paula, as she glares menacingly and screams at him.
Chiron, now a fully grown and physically imposing adult man, is still plagued by his time as Little. His life now is a result of that moment of violent madness in the second act, being that the Chiron Black we now see on screen was made hard in America’s hyperviolent and enslaving penal system.
He also has echoes of Juan, bringing to the fore that unless shown otherwise, boys grow up to be like their fathers. And in the case of Chiron Black, he is now a drug dealer like Juan was, and is living his life in the same manner as his surrogate father once did. He drives the same style of car, wears similar clothing, and even walks with the same swagger.
But he is not Juan. His experiences with Paula and Kevin have made sure of that. He is emotionally damaged, with the facade of hypermasculinity protecting his still vulnerable heart. He is also alone. He goes to bed and wakes up alone. His body, although finely sculpted and sure to elicit much sexual arousal from the many women he may encounter, is still untouched by another since that moment on the beach with Kevin, who gave him the nickname of Black.
However, one phone call changes everything. Kevin, now played by André Holland, calls to speak to him across the divide of thousands of moments that have separated them. He is a changed man, whereas Chiron is still held captive by a lifetime of decisions. But it is a phone call that turns Chiron’s life on its head. It is a moment that has the impact of resurrecting the love and tenderness within Chiron’s life. It is a moment visually observed in Chiron having a subsequent wet dream featuring his one-time lover.
But before he can meet Kevin again, Chiron must meet his mother one last time. Paula, now in rehab, shakes and croaks as she interacts with Chiron, who has by now given up on her. He is formal with her, lacking the empathy for her that is often so natural and significant between a son and his mother. But we know it is all too much for Chiron to see his mother again. She is now old, sad and defeated; now repentant for her past mistakes. He can no longer internalise his hate for her, as it has poisoned him and terrorised him.
Her voice breaks in saying, “I love you, Chiron. I do. I love you, baby. You ain’t gotta love me. Lord knows I did not have love for you when you needed it. I know that. So you ain’t gotta love me. But you gonna know that I love you.” And with that, he lets go of his hatred in a single tear and forgives her for her failures. Tears are a recurring symbol of Chiron’s deep connection to the healing power of water. And it is by tears that they come together and are at peace.
And it is now time for him to return home. Back to the city of his worst ordeals. Back to the hometown of his black Cuban father, Juan, who had also hated his mother, but lamented her passing. And it is now time for him to come back to Little.
Chiron meets Kevin in his diner. It is a sombre event with held breaths and soured expectations. It is not the reunion that either expected, with both men having changed so dramatically from the lovers who shared a beach. Kevin shocks Chiron with news of his son, and in the tense silence that follows, Chiron churns and ruminates, slighted by the worst of enemies, time.
But even though life has happened to them, that undercurrent of tension and longing has returned. They communicate the unspeakable, and by the end of the act, they are in each other’s arms, comforting each other. Chiron’s chiselled masculinity is softened and embraced by Kevin, who responds with tenderness.
And in coming back to Kevin, Chiron finally confronts that part of himself that he has kept away for so long.
He finally accepts Little.
In a film with an all-black cast, and in the hands of a black director and a black writer, it’s no surprise that the film has coaxed full and sumptuous performances out of all of the cast members, both established and new. It is even more surprising to find out that the actors for Chiron had not met each other before the filming of their scenes.
It is testament to the acting prowess of these three brilliant young actors that they were able to draw so much from McCraney’s screenplay and Jenkins’ direction to create a seamless performance at ever stage of Chiron’s narrative. Jenkins’ ability to blend and control so many aspects of the film into a beautiful and sensitive visual poem speaks of his bright future as an auteur of cinema, perhaps in the same brilliant vein as the masterful Steve McQueen.
James Laxton’s cinematography behind Moonlight is key to enabling its strong visual storytelling. Moonlight is a film with an all-black cast, all of whom vary in shades of melanin. It is the first literary film to utilise black skin in an aesthetically pleasing manner that lends to the film’s visual storytelling.
Laxton’s careful control of lighting and exposure makes every shot of Chiron’s beautifully dark face, detailed and toned by each of the actors’ strong performances, stand out in contrast or harmony with the environment of the scene. Each frame stuns on the widescreen of a dark cinema, which is perhaps the best if not the only way to experience Moonlight. Only in the cinema can you get the total cinematic experience, as Nicholas Britell’s score unnerves and pulls Chiron in and out of every shot with the drawing of the strained string.
“Running around, catching a lot of light. In the moonlight, black boys look blue.” This iconic notion expresses itself in each frame of the film. The black boys really do look blue in Moonlight, thanks to the superb editing by Joi McMillon and Nat Sander, creating a film that is visually and aurally coherent. Combined with Laxton’s cinematography under Jenkins’ genius direction, each scene and moment expresses the thematic content of the McCraney literary screenplay.
The slow burn of Moonlight’s screenplay is rooted with poetic symbolism. The first act introduces us to the recurring motif of Little standing by the ocean. Chiron’s attachment to water and its symbolic nature as a life-giver and healer is repeatedly addressed in the film. Whether it is in the bath or the basin, or in the vast and endless ocean in which Juan teaches him how to swim, water has a profound and vital meaning for Chiron. It is his safe point, his comforter, and his enabler.
It also symbolises his turmoil in the form of tears. Juan’s shame at having being outed as Paula’s dealer wrenches the gut with his silent tears. Chiron’s admission that he cries so much that he might ‘just turn into drops’ is answered with the beautiful response of ‘just rolling out into the water.’ The dialogue is intensely lyrical, with each word carefully chosen to reflect the story’s convictive reality and subtle poetry.
And in the final act, when Chiron Black shows us his tear, we understand that the poetic symbolism of Moonlight has reached its conclusion, as the young Little faces the ocean, turning back to face us, now that Chiron has found him again.