More impressive and important than the beautiful story that Moonlight wants to tell is the elegant and delicate way it does it


Moonlight (2016)

Di­rect­ed by Bar­ry Jenk­ins. Screen­play by Bar­ry Jenk­ins. Sto­ry by Tarell Alvin Mc­Craney. Based on “In Moon­light Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin Mc­Craney. Star­ring Tre­vante Rhodes, Ash­ton Sanders, Alex R. Hi­b­bert, An­dré Hol­land, Jhar­rel Jerome, Jaden Pin­er, Naomie Har­ris, Ma­her­sha­la Ali, Janelle Monáe and Patrick Decile.

Bar­ry Jenk­ins is a di­rec­tor who deeply un­der­stands the lan­guage of cin­e­ma. Af­ter watch­ing his beau­ti­ful film Moon­light a sec­ond time in less than three days, I must ad­mit I was left even more im­pressed. In only his sec­ond fea­ture film, Jenk­ins sur­pris­es us with the sen­si­tive and re­fined way he has cho­sen to tell a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple sto­ry, bathing his nar­ra­tive in gor­geous tones of blue that main­ly serve to re­flect the protagonist’s feel­ings and the sad uni­verse he in­hab­its. The re­sult he achieves is a work of im­mense po­et­ic beau­ty and an­oth­er proof of the vi­su­al pow­er of nar­ra­tive. As the late, great crit­ic Roger Ebert used to say, it doesn’t mat­ter so much what sto­ry you want to tell but rather how you tell it.

Based on the semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal play In Moon­light Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin Mc­Craney, the film (made with a bud­get of only $1.5 mil­lion) is di­vid­ed into three chap­ters (or acts) that set out to chron­i­cle the bleak life of African-Amer­i­can Ch­i­ron as he grows up in the crime-rid­den neigh­bor­hood of Lib­er­ty City in Mi­a­mi, deals with his crack-ad­dict­ed moth­er and falls prey to con­stant bul­ly­ing while dis­cov­er­ing his own ho­mo­sex­u­al­i­ty. The sto­ry re­flects the child­hood of both Jenk­ins and Mc­Craney, who grew up in the pub­lic hous­ing com­plex of Lib­er­ty Square in the same neigh­bor­hood and also had moth­ers who were drug addicts.

Played by three ac­tors in dif­fer­ent mo­ments of his life, Ch­i­ron is de­pict­ed as a shy boy with sad eyes who grows into a hard­ened man that could have had more in life. In the first chap­ter, the young Ch­i­ron known as Lit­tle (Alex R. Hi­b­bert) is a skin­ny and qui­et boy who em­bod­ies the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of be­ing a child grow­ing up in a dys­func­tion­al home with an emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive moth­er. He has no friends, and his only com­pan­ion is Kevin (Jaden Pin­er). In one scene that speaks a lot vi­su­al­ly, we see a bunch of young kids (dressed in dif­fer­ent shades of blue) play­ing with a rag ball while Ch­i­ron (wear­ing a red T‑shirt) tries to fit in but is kept aside and excluded.

Even so, it is touch­ing to see that there are peo­ple will­ing to give him love, like the crack deal­er Juan (Ma­her­sha­la Ali) and his girl­friend Tere­sa (Janelle Monáe). “In moon­light, black boys look blue,” Juan re­calls what an old lady once said to him. “At some point, you got­ta de­cide for your­self who you’re go­ing to be.” Juan may teach Ch­i­ron how to swim, but no one can swim for him. In a rough neigh­bor­hood like this, peo­ple do what­ev­er they can to sur­vive, and it is re­al­ly trag­ic that the clos­est per­son to Ch­i­ron (Juan) is in­di­rect­ly re­spon­si­ble for his de­press­ing child­hood, since Chiron’s moth­er Paula (Naomie Har­ris) buys drugs from him.

We see the sale of drugs on the streets, and a po­lice car siren can be heard at a close dis­tance. Be­ing a meek young boy in such a place can be re­al­ly hard. When he reach­es ado­les­cence, Ch­i­ron (now played by Ash­ton Sanders, ex­cep­tion­al) looks even skin­nier and more frag­ile, as if he is about to break at any mo­ment. His eyes car­ry the sad­ness of the world, and the oth­er boys pick on him, clear­ly be­cause they no­tice he is gay. Be­ing gay in this place is also hard. “I cry so much, some­times I feel like Imma just turn into drops,” he ad­mits, in one the most painful scenes. Like all moth­ers, Paula knows that he is gay and go­ing to suf­fer for who he is.

Naomie Har­ris, by the way, does an amaz­ing job play­ing a com­plex char­ac­ter. De­spite be­ing a train wreck who abus­es her own son emo­tion­al­ly and takes his mon­ey to buy more drugs, Paula shows a pro­tec­tive side and cares that he goes to school, so he won’t be­come some­one like her. When we see her in the film’s third chap­ter, she looks old­er and near­ly dis­fig­ured, the ef­fects of years of drug ad­dic­tion re­flect­ed on her de­cayed teeth and ex­haust­ed eyes. It is a care­ful com­po­si­tion that makes us feel pro­found­ly sor­ry for her, even as she re­al­izes the ir­repara­ble harm that she has caused her own son — and no­tice how the front of her hair looks blue now.

What makes Moon­light so spe­cial is not just the fact that it tells a beau­ti­ful sto­ry that de­serves to be told, but the way it does so is el­e­gant and so­phis­ti­cat­ed, with elab­o­rate cam­era move­ments and an or­gan­ic use of the col­or blue in al­most every scene to mir­ror the character’s feel­ings (both in the cin­e­matog­ra­phy and art di­rec­tion). There is a del­i­cate kiss scene on a beach, for in­stance, that is tint­ed in blue un­der the moon­light and looks gor­geous, like pure vi­su­al po­et­ry. Like­wise, the edit­ing is stu­pen­dous and trans­lates Chiron’s emo­tion­al stress in scenes that use a ner­vous cam­era and abrupt cuts — which also in­ter­rupt cer­tain mo­ments of ten­der­ness that feel al­most in­tru­sive in a sad sto­ry like this.

At a cer­tain mo­ment, Kevin (played in the sec­ond chap­ter by Jhar­rel Jerome) sug­gests that Ch­i­ron “roll out into the wa­ter just like all these ram­bo-fuck­ers try­ing to drown their sor­row.” It seems like an al­ter­na­tive out of this ugly life. But some peo­ple learn to be tough, es­pe­cial­ly if you are black and do time. The Ch­i­ron we see in the third chap­ter (played by Tre­vante Rhodes and go­ing by the name “Black”) is a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of so many hard­en­ing fac­tors. His ap­pear­ance is strik­ing, yet we can still see some­thing of the old Ch­i­ron in his eyes. Though it is hard to be­lieve what this full-fledged man re­veals about his lack of hu­man con­tact, we buy it. And I love how he re­moves his gold teeth when he re­al­izes his new “mask” is not necessary.

With a beau­ti­ful, melan­choly mu­sic score by Nicholas Britell that com­bines clas­sic or­ches­tra (es­pe­cial­ly the sounds of pi­ano and vi­o­lins) and the “chopped and screwed” tech­nique of hip-hop remix­es, Moon­light also of­fers a mod­ern dis­cus­sion that would have nev­er ex­ist­ed, say, 20 years ago be­tween Juan and Ch­i­ron about be­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al. The way the film deals with this sub­ject is as ma­ture as it is sub­tle and del­i­cate, like the lyrics of a song that plays close to the end and says more than a thou­sand di­a­logue lines could.

Sur­pris­ing us un­til the very last shot, which echoes the end­ing of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), this film de­serves all the awards it has been re­ceiv­ing. And I guess it will be hard for me not to think for a mighty long time how in Moon­light, black boys look blue.


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