Film review: Moonlight

by James Robins / 13 February, 2017

Juan (Mahershala Ali) with Chiron (Alex Hibbert).

A confident and compassionate chronicle of a young black man’s struggles.

To the esteemed roster of chroniclers of black experience in the US – which includes James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates – we can add the name Barry ­Jenkins, the writer and director of ­Moonlight. What unites this exceptional group is the unbending honesty of their observations and the outright majesty of their art.

Moonlight is a story in three parts, chapters in the life of a black man named Chiron. We first see him in pre-adolescence (played by Alex ­Hibbert), backpack flapping as he flees a gang of playground bullies, holing up in a bombed-out house with boarded-up windows. He is an introverted kid. Even when Juan (Mahershala Ali) prises away the plywood, lets the humid Florida light in and offers a warm hand, Chiron only looks at him with wide white eyes. Juan becomes a surrogate father in lieu of a cracked-up, unloving mother (Naomie Harris), but such succour does not last. We next see Chiron as a lonesome angular teenager (Ashton Sanders), beaten down again, then finally as a hardened, hulking adult (Trevante Rhodes).

Throughout, he’s known by cruel ­nicknames. “Little”, “Black”, “Faggot”. The last is especially wounding, for he’s only ever touched one other boy – a momentary late-night grapple that just confirms he must keep his sexuality suppressed.

To point out that Moonlight is “about” being black, poor and gay in the US wouldn’t be incorrect. The film is littered with markers – violence, drugs, incarceration, persecution. Yet these miserable stereotypes only exist so that Jenkins can climb inside and quietly gut them from within. He is much more interested in compassion, love, ­unconsummated yearning, forgiveness and, above all, the erring humanity of his characters, each of them performed in astonishing ways.

Jenkins directs with poetry. Both ­energetic and patiently observant, he dares to let the story tell itself. So ­evocative is his imagery that Moonlight could almost be a silent film. But that would omit the subtle cadences and beats between lines. This is where true intimacy lies, in snatched glances and uncertain shudders, between pauses louder than mere words.

This kind of confidence is rare. Which is all the more reason to treasure Moonlight as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. •••••

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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