“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you want to be,” says drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Chiron, a 10-year-old boy living in Miami with no father and a crack-dependent mother (Naomie Harris). From this brief description, Barry Jenkins’ film might sound like every other ’hood movie. But little about this story of identity, sexuality, class and race is run-of-the-mill.
Charting three distinct chapters in the life of Chiron, spanning roughly 16 years, Moonlight is almost impossible to categorise beyond its loose ‘coming-of-age’ tropes. Touching on issues of bullying, addiction and, above all, sexual confusion and repression, it’s a superbly crafted piece of work that frequently takes a sledgehammer to the stereotypes too easily associated with African-American cinema.
Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s theatre piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins uses different actors to play Chiron and his friend Kevin in the trio of chapters (dubbed ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’, after the various names our hero’s known by). We begin with Little (Alex Hibbert), who’s near-silent for the first 10 minutes after Juan discovers him in a crack den.
Lacking a father figure, Little’s friendship with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) grows – a bond complicated by the fact Juan sells drugs to Little’s mother. Already questions are forming in Little’s mind about his sexuality – something that becomes ever-more clouded when the film jumps six years. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now at high school and has feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), an inveterate womaniser.
Finally, when we see Chiron in his mid-20s – now played by Trevante Rhodes – his life has changed dramatically. To say how would spoil the surprise, beyond the fact he goes by the name ‘Black’ and is living in Atlanta. Rhodes adeptly conveys the emotional turmoil his character is in; André Holland, who plays Kevin – now a short-order cook – is also an admirable foil.
Across all three segments, Naomie Harris is marvellous as Chiron’s mother, Paula, whose gradual descent into crack dependency – mirrored by their family home’s decline into a hovel – is brilliantly essayed. But it’s the craft of Moonlight that lingers: the terrific sound design, for example, that reflects Paula’s fractured mental state, or the dreamy cinematography as Chiron spends a night under Miami’s palms.
With a classical score by Nicholas Britell – another fine against-the-grain choice – Moonlight keeps surprising. The final reel isn’t quite as impactful as you’d hope, but it’s a hugely impressive work – one that’s won the Golden Globe for Best Drama – and will be long remembered.