There is a scene in Moonlight in which a small boy is taught by an older companion to float, and then swim, in the dazzling brim of the Miami shore. Both are black; the boy is Chiron, the youngest version of him the audience will see, and the older man is Juan. Though Juan feeds Chiron, gives him a bed in his home, he is not Chiron’s father — not even close. In fact, he is a dope dealer who profits from the same crack that renders Chiron’s mother desperate and volatile, unable to care for her son.
It is just one of the complexities that makes Moonlight a film so singularly moving — hope, layered with heartbreak, on the characters’ own grapplings with the things that cannot change in their world. But for now, in the blue waters off the Miami coast, Juan and Chiron are just two heads bobbing beside each other. The music, gliding and electric, swells above them as high as each wave. It is the purest moment of the entire film, and it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful scenes in modern cinema.
Told in three parts, Moonlight follows Chiron as he navigates his way from elementary school to manhood, catapulting him from a young boy (nicknamed “Little” by his peers), to a gangly, bullied teenager, to an unrecognizably muscled man, insulated in his own toughness.
Chiron, over the course of his maturation, is played with subtlety and grace by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, chronologically). And as he grows older, so, too, does his pain graduate from one form to the next. His addicted mother Paula, for example, played ferociously by Naomie Harris, is the anguish in Little’s world. But by the third chapter of the film, the tables have turned. Chiron (now nicknamed “Black”) visits her in rehab, and she reprimands him for the way he makes his living dealing dope on the streets.
Lining the entire film is another source of conflict for Chiron — his own struggles with sexual orientation. Chiron is gay in a world that is unforgiving, and throughout the film the audience witnesses him realize and bury this part of himself.
Another recurring character in each of Moonlight’s chapters is Kevin, Chiron’s friend and fascination, who shapeshifts from friend to lover to bully and then back again. Laced through their story are leaps from public school to the prison system and a roaring sense of toughness that is the only way to survive these stepping stones.
This movie is about masculinity, so it is also a movie about not talking. In this sense, the film is a subversion: No one — except, perhaps, in one moment — says all of what they feel. Instead, we watch Chiron take the pain of his life and build himself around it.
Visually, Moonlight is resoundingly and defiantly beautiful. If once there was a time when movies didn’t know how to light black characters, Moonlight is an exquisite testament to black beauty.
Indeed, director Barry Jenkins uses his camera to paint landscapes: He takes a crack house, an ocean, a parking lot and a high school and makes unforgettable images out of them. Jenkins’ characters don’t just exist on the plane of this world, they move through the world’s colors as if the world was created for them.
And just as color comes to be a theme for Chiron throughout his life —in the nicknames he is given and learns to adapt — so, too, is his world vivid and rich in its hues. This, of course, all points toward the title of the play the film is adapted from: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” But in the movie’s magical eye, race also becomes another color on Jenkins’ palette. Moonlight makes a masterpiece out of dark skin.
The opening scene of the film employs a roving long take reminiscent of the cinematography for Gravity and Children of Men, both films with stories that skew more toward a traditional subject: white people, with their lives at stake, in amped-up situations where the world has been thrown off-balance. Rarely do we see films featuring people of color, but even more rarely do we see their stories told with such calculated grace.
As Hilton Als points out in his review of the film for the New Yorker, Moonlight contains no white characters, and essentially no white faces are included in the entire canvas of the film. This is absolutely revolutionary, and also critically important: In an era when Hollywood is finally coming to terms with its centuries-old habit of erasing voices of color, Moonlight stands defiant of anything that preceded it, a role model for young filmmakers that showcases the boundless promise of cinema, the boundless potential in the stories of anyone, anywhere.
Outwardly defiant and in itself an exquisite testament to strength and heartbreak, Moonlight is a story told so tenderly that it holds the audience at the same time it rips them apart.