Published Sep 12, 2016While touching on aspects of African-American culture like celebrated hood films before it, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight focuses on ideas of identity and masculinity amongst LGBTQ African-American and Hispanic-American men — a topic that the light of the silver screen has seldom touched.
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film closely follows protagonist Chiron through a trio of free-flowing acts: childhood, young adulthood and adulthood. In his younger years, he struggles through being bullied at school and living a rough home life with a drug-addled mother. As a teenager, he grapples with his sexuality and its accompanying urges, all while his mother's drug problem worsens and the bullying becomes more violent and homophobic. As an adult, Chiron is anything but the scrawny teenager he once was, yet the struggles of both sex and identity still weigh heavily on him.
Jenkins' secondary characters remain impressively vibrant despite the film's three-part fixation on one leading character. As Chiron's mother Paula, Naomie Harris toes a powerful line between protective parent and addict. Mahershala Ali does the same as both a drug dealer and an adoptive father figure to young Chiron, while Janelle Monáe succeeds as an empathic adoptive mother in her first on-screen film role. Chiron's childhood friend and love interest Kevin also undergoes striking developments through all three movements, from happy-go-lucky child (Jaden Piner), to boastful teenager who hides his own questioning, to warm adult, looking for reconciliation.
Though dividing a film into movements can lead to things feeling too broken apart, Moonlight's loose narrative doesn't lose itself in its own fluidity. Coupled with sensible pacing, the format makes each life-shaping moment within the chapters that much more powerful for the viewer, whether it's a young Chiron witnessing his mother in the deepest throes of addiction, getting sent to juvenile hall after violent retaliation in high school, or breaking down emotionally as a grown man despite his tough image.
By adapting McCraney's story to a mass medium, Jenkins brings an emotional portrait of being a black gay man in America to a much broader audience, giving Moonlight the utmost potential to become essential viewing in the years to come.