There was a moment in my life when I realized a bully was just a person reacting to their own insecurity. Understanding that someone could respond to their personal weakness by exposing and abusing it in others was a shock, an epiphany that shifted my world. Red-faced bluster started to look like fear, strength became suspect, self-doubt revealed dignity. Moonlight is a film that examines the weakness and dignity of a gay black man in the poor, powerful streets of Miami, and the bullies building walls around him. It navigates the volatile waters of masculinity and sexuality, black culture, addiction, love and hate, blending them into something familiar and awful.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron in three parts: as a child (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a man (Trevante Rhodes). Chiron is tabbed as different from the get-go, the film opening with a group of kids chasing “Little” into an abandoned motel, hollering faggot, etc. He’s discovered by pure-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who brings him home and feeds him, giving him a glimpse of what a father could have looked like. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) is a mess, aware of her son’s otherness, and too caught up in the burden of it to be anything more than a mercurial drug addict. A boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland) seems similarly different, but circumstances insist that Chiron’s heart stay locked up. Lonely and queer, he moves like a shadow through the world, longing for nothing more than a safe place.
It’s hard to imagine any of these actors moving forward from Moonlight without a rising stock, but the true revelation is Writer/Director Barry Jenkins. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins opted to adapt the story into three chapters, each built around a formative moment. It’s a smart choice, and one of many. Jenkins develops the characters in Moonlight organically, letting the parts reveal the whole. He’s happy to let silences work, and the fact that even the film’s youngest performers seem equipped to handle a quiet moment speaks volumes about his ability to guide actors. The camera work is another triumph, using movement to energize, and deftly emphasizing moments of intimacy or invasion, love and loneliness.
There’s not a person on the planet who hasn’t felt alone, hasn’t stumbled through self-doubt. It’s why a movie like Moonlight resonates. Even setting aside astonishing performances from all three actors playing Chiron, the character on the page remains acutely compelling and intensely heartbreaking. In the film’s breathtaking third act, a grown Chiron has folded himself fully into the role of hardened drug dealer, opting to live a lie in lieu of staying open to attack. It’s startling and agonizing, but logical. For a long time being a man has meant sidestepping sensitivity, remaining distinct from vulnerability, so what can one do when his vulnerability is inherent, fundamental? I can imagine no greater turmoil than the one born of being told that the way you love is wrong, that you are wrong. Recognizing the sacrifice made by this character — and recognizing that it is borne of hate and fear — is as affecting a revelation as you’re likely to have in a movie theater this year.
The best stories are the small ones that seem bigger, and Moonlight is one. It’s terribly intimate and emotional, singularly-focused. These small stories are vital because of what they reveal about the world. What sits at the heart of this story — forcing people into boxes, insisting that otherness be tamped down, reproach of what’s different — is exactly what’s so terrifying about our new America. And that is what makes Moonlight better than good: the intrinsic relevance. It is a film that impels empathy, and in this new era of mistrust, of unfounded dread supplanting the individual, empathy has never been as vital.