Conducted in three chapters, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a young man’s story of heartache and struggle to find himself in life, through his experiences growing up in an abusive environment in Miami. It’s a story as old as time but Jenkins’ immerses the audience in to the perspective of a young boy called Chiron AKA Little.
The scene opens with a continuously spinning shot of drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) tracking a young Little (Alex R. Hibbert) chased by school boys before ending in an abandoned house. Juan takes Little under his wing after finding him hiding and there begins the story of the protagonist as the camera becomes more consistently shot, indicating their meeting was an act of destiny. Juan poses as a father figure to Little by taking him to the beach, passing on his own personal advice to the boy and teaching him to swim. Jenkins uses the camera to follow the direction of the wave as Juan holds Little in his arms flowing a sense of fluidity and energy between the two.
In an intimately shot scene where Kevin (Jaden Piner) teaches Little to fight for himself, ending in a tackle on the school field – Jenkins plays on their innocence and underlying affections through the look on their faces. Minimal dialogue is needed in “Moonlight” through the incredible casting and the Director trusting body language to tell this story. Chiron chooses to confide in Juan asking him “am I a faggot?” – bluntly indicating his confusion with his sexuality, it’s evident Chiron is troubled with his identity and masculinity more than ever.
Although Juan becomes Little’s protector – the consequences of his job occupation brings the chapter to a full circle when Little’s own mother (Naomie Harris) is consumed by the very drugs he sells and repressing a young Chiron – bringing forth some hard truths.
Within the next chapter marked “ii. Chiron” – the scene picks up in the life of an adolescent Little (Ashton Sanders) dealing with a desperately unhinged mother and Juan’s passing, which becomes a sudden but unsurprising shock to the audience. Jenkins explains that this is the inevitable shelf life of a drug dealer, leaving Chiron feeling claustrophobic and pressured in his environment without a masculine figure to take on as his role model. Chiron wanders back to the same beach six years later, finding consolidation in his classmate Kevin. The real tragedy is Chiron’s identity in which he struggled so hard to find, climaxes in the arms of Kevin, only to be beaten down by the very same person.The final chapter of his new identity “Black” (Trevant Rhodes) takes after Juan with a gangster persona and gold grills.
No matter how hard “Black” fights to conceal who he really is, he’s challenged by voices from his past i.e. his mother in rehabilitation and an estranged phone call from Kevin. “Moonlight” forces Black to face up to himself by seeking out Kevin (André Holland) – in search of what he’d been looking for all along and obtaining closure from his nightmarish past. There is no need for a comprehensive dialogue,as the facial expressions and chemistry in Kevin and Black speak for themselves – bringing them both back to the beach and in each other’s arms.
Although there are aspects of romanticism in the story, “Moonlight” uncovers the truth of living in a violent black community. Chiron’s life is always solitary and isolated as he grows up in a drug-dependent environment and spending years in prison, only to be brought back into the same violent community. However, Jenkins takes the repression and anger from this and illuminates moments of innocence, intimacy and the effect of a first love. Jenkins ends the film with a shot of Little standing on the beach looking out at the wave – fully justifying the purity of the film and its visual poetry.
It comes as no surprise that “Moonlight” has been praised on its cast. During a special Q&A held at Curzon Mayfair, London with Director Barry Jenkins and Actress Naomie Harris – Jenkins discusses the complexity in casting three different Chiron’s and the need for Naomie Harris to recalibrate herself to three different roles as Paula (Chiron’s mother). With limited rehearsals as a low-budget Independent film, Naomie Harris spoke about the intimate encounter between her character’s son and the level of improvisation used in the film to help achieve Barry Jenkins’ vision. Naomie Harris who starred in massive blockbusters from Pirates of the Caribbean to two James Bond films, talked about the differences in working for both types of industries. She proceeded to discuss the Independent Director’s vision for the film is always their own and how the cast can help the Director in keeping to their visual perception, without the disruption from external factors i.e producers. Jenkins also spoke about how he purposely prevented the cast meeting until minutes before the scenes were shot, relying on the cast to bring their own personality into the film. A scene showing this, is an emotional encounter between Naomie Harris and Trevant Rhodes at Paula’s rehab centre as she tries to light her cigarette because she doesn’t smoke offset. Trevant Rhodes proceeds to help her light it and the camera continues to roll as Harris carries on unscripted.
“Moonlight” is a beautifully dark film that brings a sombre score and visually striking cinematography to the surface. With Barry Jenkins’ personal vision at hand, “Moonlight” is a masterpiece.
“Moonlight” will be available to UK theatres on 17th February 2016