“Who the hell you think you is?”
The illustrious autobiography A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah was required summer reading heading into my freshman year of college. It’s a transformative piece of literature, one that reads like the embodiment of last year’s brilliant motion picture Beasts of No Nation. Both feature child soldiers, trauma, rehabilitation. I bring this up because Beah’s lauded work is able to help define and capture the elusive spirit of Barry Jenkins’ shattering Moonlight through a single passage. Beah says, “Everyone becomes happy and appreciates the moon in their own special way. Children watch their shadows and play in its light, people gather at the square to tell stories and dance through the night. A lot of happy things happen when the moon shines. These are some of the reasons why we should want to be like the moon.” And such is the experience of submerging yourself into the overwhelming empathy of Moonlight. You won’t soon forget this film.
Many will define Moonlight by what it quite literally is: a movie about a gay black man grappling with his identity, all told through three sequential sections. But the film is so much more than that, telling a story from left to right and start to finish in the triptych spirit of a work by Hieronymus Bosch. This is the life of one man told in chapters, a narrative device that illustrates how human beings are, over the course of a single lifetime, different people at different points. Here, we first encounter Little, then Chiron, and ultimately meet Black. Little (Alex R. Hibbert) is a stray pup, quiet, picked on. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) sequesters his feelings, is gangly and bullied, lives with a Mom (Naomie Harris) stolen by an addiction to crack. Years later, Black (Trevante Rhodes) becomes a man we did not initially foresee. Cruising the traps in his Cutlass Supreme, now brawny, wearing fronts made of fool’s gold. Take each section on its own terms and you have three remarkably introspective looks at the various definitions of masculinity. But as a whole, Moonlight becomes a metaphysical journey bordering on a religious experience.
To start, Little finds a father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali). He’s a Miami drug dealer with his heart in the right place while his moral compass is not. Can you really teach a boy to be a man when you’re the one fueling his mother’s addiction? Still, Juan and his girl Teresa (Janelle Monáe) feed Little and give him shelter. Juan even teaches him to swim in a breathtakingly baptismal scene. It’s a pivotal point, and one that’s soon to be followed by two more defining character moments in the next chapters. In high school, Chiron stumbles upon his old friend Kevin at the beach, their bond transforming from meaningless small talk to affectionate touching and intimacy. Is this a one-time occurrence or a brief exercise of sexual curiosity that’s been closeted in order to abide by cultural lines and expectations? Moonlight searches for such an answer in its final act. Kevin (now played by André Holland), a jolt from the past, calls Black after nearly a decade. The two meet, and the exchange is as unprocessed and tender as anything you’ll see this year.
I’ll tell you this now — Moonlight starts slowly. Stick with it, give it time, let it settle into the desired rhythm and pace, because once you do the film is something to behold. But also know that you’re going to have to read this story and make interpretations on the spot. For example, as Mom, why is Harris the only character and performer who appears in all three blocks? That one is easy, because for better or worse, a mother’s presence is constant. But even deeper are conscious decisions of location and action. Each segment builds to a significant event, first transpiring in the Gulf, then on its beach, and finally in a tiny apartment across the street. Little boils water for a bath, Chiron plunges his bruised face into a sink of ice water, Black opens the freezer door to feel the cold brush against his cheecks. In Moonlight, water serves as a contextual interpretation of our figurehead’s inner psyche. As a child, warm water represents a safe zone of comfort. As a teenager, ice water signifies a numbed self-awareness. As an adult, the freezer’s cold air conjures the last memory of being physically and emotionally touched ten years prior. Few films require this level of thought from the viewer. More than any other picture I’ve seen in 2016, Moonlight merits such enriching analysis.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins, working off Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, doesn’t hide his powerful and consequential sense of prose. The man could hold an Autumn breeze, see light in the dark, and define the taste of water. This is captured poetry, packed with visually breathtaking work (evocative of In the Mood for Love) by DP James Laxton, propelled along the urbanized shorelines of slowed down sonatas from Nicholas Britell. In a just world, Jenkins’ film would be one of the most widely nominated of the year, and would dominate the Best Supporting Actor category with Ali’s neighborly approach, Holland’s erotic eyes, and Rhodes’ tremulous voice quivering inside the physical embodiment of strength. The film is a fractional and authorized study of the POC experience on a cosmic scale that elegantly threads its audience through an all-seeing needle. This is the Eye of Providence. By the meticulous hands of a tailor and a seamstress, the story fits the current climate and is as essential to its core as it is to the contingent. Its humility, vitality, and candor alter your perspective. To see this film isn’t just to believe its truth; it’s to understand, and maybe even transmute, the definition and substance of love.
“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Rating: 5 out of 5