This essay is part of our 2016 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2016.
Boiling a film’s plot down to a sentence or two often fails to do it justice, but the sentiment’s rarely been as true as it is here. At its most direct, Moonlight is about a young black boy whose struggle with poverty, bullying, neglect, and his own burgeoning sexuality builds through his teen years and into manhood. In reality though it’s a graceful, unforgettable experience that plays equally to our hearts, minds, and senses.
There’s a scene early in Barry Jenkins’ second feature that sees young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the boys who make his life hell, sharing a meal with a drug dealer and the man’s girlfriend. Juan (Mahershala Ali) has become something of a surrogate father to the boy and offers a respite from Chiron’s increasingly crack-addled mother (a harrowing Naomie Harris). Eyes down, the boy pauses the procession of warm, homemade food going into his mouth and asks “My mama does drugs?” Juan nods, and the boy follows it with “You sell drugs?” Juan drops his own eyes and nods again while the boy’s face reveals the equation being solved in his mind. He leaves the table, and tough, hard-edged Juan breaks down.
It’s a devastating pin-drop moment performed and captured with a deafening and heartbreaking softness. And it’s just one of many powerful moments and scenes in Moonlight.
Juan teaching Chiron not only to swim in the ocean but to relax – a scene made even better knowing Ali is actually teaching young Hibbert. A teenager’s first kiss and sexual encounter followed by a shy and unnecessary apology. A meal made for a friend after years apart. The pure magic of facing the ocean beneath the stars and the moon. A mother’s slow descent through addiction. Two boys, two friends, walking silently side by side. A man allowing himself permission to be himself.
It’s a film filled with memorable sequences and beats, but it’s also a film whose entirety acts as a timely, nearly two-hour “moment” capturing the heart of a country at war with itself. We as a people are struggling, still, with race, sexuality, and class, and while outside forces – other people, media, government – work to direct our attention each of us are ultimately responsible for our own thoughts and actions. Chiron’s journey is our journey, and watching him move through life in turn moves viewers through anger, sadness, and the welcoming possibility of hope. It deftly avoids the derogatory pigeonholing of “poverty porn” by skipping past lazy cliche and the twin capitalization of/on Tragedy and Misery to instead explore themes of empathy and compassion, both for others and ourselves.
But I’m rambling.
Jenkins’ film doesn’t need metaphorical ascription from a straight white guy with a middle-class upbringing or the added weight of speaking for an entire nation. Moonlight is specifically, beautifully, and powerfully one man’s story.
Chiron is brought to life at three ages by Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, and the three performances are every bit as convincing and contiguous a progression as Ellar Coltrane’s in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Jenkins’ script (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play and informed by both men’s lives) tells Chiron’s story without concern for traditional narrative defaults including story turns we’d otherwise expect to see unfold.
Time jumps conceal the disappearance of a major character, the defining time Chiron spends in prison, and other sequences we’ve been taught to expect like confrontations with police or his forced toughening-up into a criminal. Even the film’s conclusion, as viscerally and emotionally satisfying an ending as one could hope for, is anything but an ending. We’re brought through three stages of Chiron’s life over the course of the film, and then it ends just as the fourth begins.
We want to keep watching, to continue our role as witness to a life we’ve come to value and care for, but we’re also okay letting go. Chiron’s life has been shaped by the action and inaction of others up to this point, but we’re left with the affirming realization that now, perhaps for the first time, it rests solely within his own hands.
The film is distributed by A24, and while the sheer quality of Moonlight alone is enough to warrant our decision to anoint them Filmmaker of the Year they’re also the driving force behind some of 2016’s other critical darlings including Green Room, The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, The Witch, Krisha, and 20th Century Women. Their relationship with Moonlight though goes beyond simply delivering it into the world – Jenkins’ film is also their first feature produced in-house.