moonlight

review by naomi keenan o'shea

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is a salient portrayal of contemporary African American life experienced through the lens of the film’s predominantly silent protagonist Chiron. The audience watches a cruel world unfold against him in three stages of his life, beginning with Chiron at nine and following him into his teenage and adult years (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively). He struggles silently against an negligent upbringing with a single mother (Naomie Harris) who is addicted to hard drugs, and he holds reticent ground against the ritual harassment and beatings he endures at the hands of his classmates throughout his youth. When we meet Chiron as an adult, in the final chapter of his life on screen, he has metamorphosed into the masculine hard body that has plagued him physically and emotionally since childhood, and which he struggles to reconcile with his homosexuality. 

The moments of immense tenderness that populate an otherwise gruelling and painful film are continually undercut by the tragic reality of Chiron’s world; even Juan (Mahershala Ali), the man who first saves nine-year old Chiron from the loneliness that defines his life, cannot reconcile his love and devotion to the child with the reality that he is his mother’s drug dealer. He can offer Chiron a safe place to sleep and a deeply empathetic perspective on his sexuality, but he cannot separate himself from the role he plays in the disintegration of Chiron’s home life. Moonlight explores, in profound and devastating ways, the moral ambiguities that underpin every person’s character, achieving its most profound resonance in Chiron’s complex relationship with childhood friend Kevin. 

The three different actors that play Chiron at each stage of his life display an astonishing ability to seamlessly assimilate the depth and richness of Chiron’s character across several decades. His vulnerability is carried through unfalteringly in each scene; his character is narratively developed with both nuance and intensity throughout the three stages, with the actors maintaining the distinguishing body postures and facial expressions across the three different roles. His silence is offset by the expressiveness of his posturing and eyes; Kevin, who Chiron shares his first sexual experience with as a teenager, affectionately tells him when they meet again as adults that he has not changed because he still refuses to say more than three words at once. 

Chiron’s refusal to speak out against the onslaught of hatred and misunderstanding that characterises his life resonates tragically within the viewer; when we come to meet him in the final phase, now named Black, we can understand fully and without judgement the change he has undergone into adulthood. Armored physically against the world now, Chiron retains a fragment of his true identity through his silence. Moonlight speaks most poignantly through what the film leaves unsaid, until its momentously powerful final scene. It visually focuses on the details, colours and textures of its characters lives. And it negotiates the complexities of identity, sexuality and masculinity with real delicacy and measure. The scope of the film in temporal and emotional terms is immense, yet remains continually focused and faithful to its characters. Moonlight offers an intimate portrayal of humanity, tragedy and love, and Chiron is one of the most uniquely realised protagonists to emerge in many years. The deftly negotiated fragments of Chiron’s life coalesce into a deeply human whole, never losing their beauty and pathos as individual moments in a profoundly powerful and important film.