Moonlight is raw and important filmmaking, offering a mature take on subject matter typically overlooked by popular cinema.
At the very start of the film, as the production company logos show on screen, we hear the now-notorious sound of Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every Nigger is a Star’, the track sampled at the start of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal album To Pimp a Butterfly. Just at the point you expect Kendrick to yell out ‘Hit me!’, the film itself starts, the music stops. The inter-textual reference is just about as bold a statement of intent as an African American filmmaker could make at the moment. Make no mistake, right from the get-go, Moonlight is a work of piercing ambition.
“The film’s purpose lies in making small moments feel huge”
Barry Jenkin’s film is a fiercely emotional rumination on black homosexual identity in America, focusing on Chiron, who is played in turn by three different actors. Told in three parts spanning two decades of its protagonist’s life, Moonlight portrays a triptych of significant developmental moments, regarding identity, sexuality, and masculinity. Growing up as the son of a drug-addicted mother, a pre-pubescent Chiron – nicknamed ‘Little’ – comes to know his mother’s dealer, a generous, remorseful figure who becomes something of a father figure. After one particularly significant conversation, the film cuts to its second part, wherein a teenage Chiron has to confront unrelenting bullies, and begins to explore his own burgeoning sexuality, specifically his undiscussed homosexuality. The third chapter sees an adult Chrion (Trevante Rhodes), who has become a successful and respected drug dealer out-of-state, return to his past and reconnect with a former childhood friend.
There is a particularly well-judged feel to the structure and pacing of the film. Each part feels somewhat self-contained and episodic – the different lead actors and changing sets of circumstances contribute to this – while remaining one very distinct whole, with a clearly-drawn emotional through-line. The film’s purpose lies in making small moments feel huge; this is achieved with resounding success. The last act is by far the quietest, most small-scale of the three, yet the cumulative back story charges every small incident with heart and meaning.
The most substantial improvement could be the dialogue, which at times veers into cliché or banality. That said, the performances all-round (many of the smaller characters bring their real A-game) are enough to keep every scene believable. And there are certainly times when the script just clicks: the film’s final lines cut to the core.
Sociologically and politically, this film is a significant success. The black, gay American identity is one that is very rarely adequately presented in film – an omission which represents an absolutely unacceptable failure to reflect a huge number of citizens, movie-goers and otherwise. With Moonlight’s success, the hope is that such a tradition has been given an overdue shot of adrenaline, and will be remembered in years to come as the start of something important. But more than that, Jenkins’ film is an impressive artistic feat, an intimate, gut-wrenching bildungsroman which wrings sublime emotion from the most pared-down of interactions.
Image: Barry Jenkins