Moonlight (2016)

  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Barry Jenkins
  • Cast: Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, André Holland


Three time periods – young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult – in the life of black-American Chiron is presented. When a child, Chiron lives with his single, crack addict mother Paula in a crime ridden neighborhood in Miami. Chiron is a shy, withdrawn child largely due to his small size and being neglected by his mother, who is more concerned about getting her fixes and satisfying her carnal needs than taking care of him. Because of these issues, Chiron is bullied, the slurs hurled at him which he doesn’t understand beyond knowing that they are meant to be hurtful. Besides his same aged Cuban-American friend Kevin, Chiron is given what little guidance he has in life from a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan, who can see that he is neglected, and Juan’s caring girlfriend Teresa, whose home acts as a sanctuary away from the bullies and away from Paula’s abuse. With this childhood as a foundation, Chiron may have a predetermined path in life, one that will only be magnified in terms…


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: Excellent acting fills in some plot holes in this coming-of-age story.

    GRADE: B+

    SYNOPSIS: A child grows up in a harsh world and learns to survive.

    JIM’S REVIEW: A young black boy grows up in Barry Jenkin’s fine film, Moonlight, a thought-provoking character study about a child growing up poor and gay. The episodic structure of the film focuses on the various passages of a boy’s life. We sadly watch his troubling initiations into adulthood, told in three acts.

    In the first chapter we meet Little (Alex Hibbert), a reedy slip of a boy, stooped over and afraid to relate to anyone. Alone, downcast and rejected, he is a survivor. His life consists of a mother (Naomie Harris) addicted to crack, no father, a close friend named Kevin (Jaden Piner), and a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who becomes his temporary guardian. The odds are stacked against him from the start.

    In the second chapter, we see him as a teenager, now called Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Still friendly with his buddy, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), he continually battles homophobia, hate, and the mean streets of Miami with varying results.

    The final section of the film takes us to his late adolescence. Renamed Black (Trevante Rhodes), this boy is a man now. Toughen and savvy, he walks the streets as his turf and continues to exist as a solitary stranger to most he comes in contact with, yearning for a human connection.
    The events imposed on this child as he goes through life are startling and make the film more profound. Seeing his limited choices for success remaining so far out of reach is powerfully rendered. Little / Chiron / Black is a perpetual victim and we watch his humanity slowly eclipsed by drugs, poverty, and crime. It is all the more effective due to the director’s sensitive handling of his subject and the fine ensemble of actors he has assembled.

    Moonlight spans a number of years but its narrative structure seems to skip some major plot strands in this script adaptation, also by Mr. Jenkins. Essential changes in characters and their situations are stated but not clearly explained. Characters tend to come and go without any conclusion. The moviegoer is expected to fill in the plot holes and needs to contribute to the leaps of logic that are abruptly shown, especially in the film’s third chapter.

    That said, the filmmakers takes its serious subject and makes its point efficiently with its realistic tone, well developed characters, and top-notch acting. The three actors who play the main character in various stages of his life are superb as are the supporting roles, especially Mr. Ali, Andre Holland as the adult Kevin, Janelle Monae as Teresa, and Ms.Harris, who is the only actor who appears in the same role in all three sections of the film. (This actress deserves Oscar consideration for her transformative acting range.)

    While the film never becomes emotionally devastating due to its disjointed episodes and an ending that seems unresolved, Moonlight still remains compelling and casts a haunting glow in this shadowland of lost souls.

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  • An extraordinary film that instantly and irrevocably marks itself as essential viewing, Moonlight is a transfixing portrait of black masculinity and the very human need for connection. Somehow both epic and intimate, its observation of a man’s quest to discover his own identity as his environment and the world at large are constantly who he should be is almost unbearable in its beauty.

    Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, adapting playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film follows its protagonist through three chapters of his life. The first finds nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert), dubbed “Little” by the schoolyard bullies who chase him into an abandoned motel at the start of the film. Little is painfully shy and withdrawn, neglected by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and without the guiding presence of a father. He’s discovered by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who brings him home to be fed and cared for by his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Though Little barely says a word, it’s clear that he finds solace in Juan’s mentoring and Teresa’s nurturing.

    The other important figure in Little’s life is Kevin (Jaden Piner), the only one of his classmates who befriends him and encourages him to stand up to the bullies. Kevin also awakens something else within Little. In one of the many stunning sequences that revolve around the question of sexuality, the two boys tussle on the schoolyard and the look on Little’s face after the grappling is done makes it evidently clear what the physical contact has meant. Yet this adds another layer of complexity to Little’s struggles. It is difficult enough to be black in a society that will always marginalise him, but to be a homosexual also makes him a bigger target in his own neighbourhood where masculine posturing is the only acceptable behaviour.

    Little’s attempt to understand the implications of his sexuality leads him to ask Juan some very uncomfortable questions. Jenkins’ handling of the scene is emblematic of Moonlight’s ability to devastate with the silences and glances between words. Jenkins often builds hold-your-breath tension from the most ordinary situations, whether it be this interrogation scene, the moonlight encounter between the teenaged Chiron and Kevin in the second chapter, the third-chapter reunion between the two when Chiron has become a muscled, grill-wearing drug and Kevin now a server and a cook at a diner, or even the wonderfully peaceful moment when Juan teaches Little to swim and let himself go.

    Moonlight works on multiple levels. In many respects, each chapter interlocks, repeating and layering motifs, and yet also able to stand apart. Too often in films featuring this structure, one section is stronger than the other but this is not the case with Moonlight. Each segment is perfectly crafted and each speaks to something in one’s soul. Who hasn’t felt overlooked, unloved, and confused about one’s place in the world? Who hasn’t felt longing, disappointment, and suffocated by one’s circumstances?

    It bears repeating what a monumental achievement Jenkins has produced with Moonlight. This is only his second feature film and yet it feels like a career-encompassing masterwork. Its texture, its poetry, its resonance – every bit of this film is so emotionally rewarding that it puts so many other films to shame. Jenkins has created characters that are often stereotypically rendered and humanised them not only with his writing but with his casting of Ali, Harris and Monáe, who are all exemplary. Three separate actors (Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) portray Chiron yet, unlike most films where one can see a disconnect once a different actor assumes the same role, there is an emotional throughline and all three actors are individually revelatory in their naturalness and intuition; they may never be this astonishing again.

    Piercingly powerful, mercilessly heartbreaking and achingly romantic, Moonlight is a sublime and challenging commentary on the politics of identity. Melancholy and a sense of resignation may permeate the film, but this is a hopeful film, one that acknowledges the tragedy of making one’s way in a world that stifles one’s identity but that also understands the capacity of healing oneself by speaking up. Electrifying.

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  • “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.”

    Moonlight brings the internal struggle of being a gay black man in America out of the shadows by shining a light on the concept of masculinity within the context of personal identity.

    “What’s a faggot?” asks young Chiron, mercilessly bullied by classmates each day, because they consider him different.

    Moonlight unfolds in three chapters of one man’s life, from childhood to young adulthood, as he discovers who he is as a black, homosexual man in the Miami projects. With themes including race, homophobia, identity and black masculinity, it’s a miracle that a film of this nature was made. It’s going to be the answer to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite.

    The film is based on the unproduced play by gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. “Black men loving each other is a radical idea,” McCraney admit. It certainly isn’t a conventional story, but it’s one that desperately needs to be told.

    Being poor, black and struggling with sexual identity are things I know absolutely nothing about. What I can relate to in Moonlight is identity and how society can negatively affect personal development in crucial stages of life. It’s bold exploration of personal adversity is exactly what the world needs to see right now.

    Director and writer Barry Jenkins returns from an eight-year film-making hiatus (this will be his second feature after Medicine For Melancholy) to tackle one of the most personal and necessary films of 2016. It’s as beautiful as it is powerful, and it’s message continues to marinate long after viewing. As The Fader describes it, “the movie sometimes unfolds like an episode of The Wire as re-imagined by the French filmmaker Claire Denis.”

    Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival then the Toronto International Film Festival surrounded by a Goliath of hot-ticket films. News of the film spread by word-of-mouth as TIFF’s breakout must-see-movie, surpassing the bigger-budgeted star-studded premiers. I was fortunate enough to catch this indie gem at the New Orleans Film Festival.

    “The reaction has been amazing,” says the 36-year-old Jenkins in Toronto. He is visibly thrilled – and relieved – to be receiving such acclaim for only his second film. “I’ve had a 65-year-old straight white man bawling in my arms.”

    The film follows the life of Chiron in three monumental stages of his life: childhood, adolescence and young adulthood (all played by different actors). The journey of Chiron to self-discovery is tumultuous and heartbreaking.

    The first chapter follows young Chiron, aka Little, (Alex Hibbert) who has no father and a junkie mother. His introversion is met with aggression from schoolyard bullies, and his only mentor is a drug dealing kingpin named Juah, magnificently portrayed by House of Cards’ and Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali. Juah’s relationship with Chiron is my favorite coupling in the film; he takes Chiron under his wing helping him on his path to self-

    When we meet Chiron as a lanky, impressionable teenager (Ashton Sanders) nicknamed “Black” against his liking, we discover his introversion has overcome his ability to connect with the outside world. From his dialogue to the way he carries himself perpetually slumped over, his inability to express himself crawls off the screen.

    The transition to adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a heartbreaking overcompensation of masculinity to conceal his homosexuality. His hyper-masculinity is accompanied by bulging muscles and a thug-like exterior; an identity to be feared and respected as a dealer on the streets.

    Throughout these stages, he meets, loses then reconnects with his only real love, Kevin.

    “We don’t get to see stories about these people so we don’t really get to humanise them and see how they get this way. To me it’s groundbreaking that people are responding to a character like this. You walk past someone like him all the time. You see the grills and assume all these things. Fifteen years ago, that kid loved ballet but the world has beaten it out of him.” Barry Jenkins via The Guardian

    One of the greatest accomplishment’s of Moonlight is it’s ability to capture both beauty and sorrow so artistically on screen without being preachy. The way Jenkins frames each shot is both methodical and unconventional. His story unfolds delicately like a dreamy memory in the corner of your mind juxtaposed with the dirty, unapologetic Miami streets. Instead of inviting the cliche hip hop beat into any scene, Jenkins chooses the unexpected Mozart to classically pair with Chiron’s ugly reality.

    While some had preconceived notions that this may be the black response to Brokeback Mountain, it’s not. At all. The dialogue and internal performances reminded me of a more modern Carol, both grappling with society pressure and treatment. But unlike Carol, which I found dull as dirt, Moonlight has a pulse and heart that bleeds off the screen.

    Moonlight is timeless and relevant now more than ever. It’s these inherent fears of acceptance and love that continue to hold us back, and Jenkins and his tremendous troupe bring these issues to the forefront where they belong.

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