A boy is learning to float. He’s supported gently below the waves by a man who stands firm in the ebb and flow. The man’s muscular body is built around him like an armoured shell. The camera is set along the plane of the water and the waves splash up against the lens as if we, the audience, are watching from close by, bobbing low beside them in the sea. The boy, Chiron, or Little as he’s nicknamed at school, is learning to hold himself up in ungovernable circumstances. The water turns a dusky grey and bottle green, the man and the boy darken in the fading light.
Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is Barry Jenkins’ second feature, following the low-budget indie love story Medicine for Melancholy (2008). It follows Chiron (played at different stages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a young black gay man as he grows up in a working class Miami community where everyone is affected by drugs in some way.
Hilton Als, in his personally charged account describes Moonlight as a film that “undoes our expectations as viewers”. What is it we expect? That the kind of American film that wins the Golden Globe for Best Picture include white characters? That a film set in a working class black neighbourhood and peopled by drug users and dealers give us a lesson or an argument? That black characters have their inner complexities reduced? That black skin, in all its shades of brown, not appear so cinematically beautiful?
In the film’s first part, “Little”, a young Chiron is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who finds him hiding out in a crack den after being bullied by a group of kids from school. Chiron becomes a frequent guest at Juan and Teresa’s (Janelle Monae) comfortable home, a respite that is complicated – Juan is supplying Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) with the crack that is part of Chiron’s troubles. There is a scene where Juan confronts her as she hits up in a car. You have a son, he tells her, and she comes right back at him – who the fuck is he to judge when he’s the one selling? And what else is he to do when the only alternative he can see is one where he’s living in public housing much like hers?
Moonlight refrains from putting forward analytic arguments about race, opportunity and the cycle of drug users and dealers, focusing instead on how its characters hold themselves in their skins. We’re not asked to think about Chiron, but instead, through the tactile qualities of the image, become him. There are echoes of Charles Burnett in Jenkins’ style, but also of the Asian directors of the body—Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang—all of whom capture social outsiders in light and colour and place in a way that puts the audience inside the texture of their being. In Moonlight, moments of physical collision are filmed to emphasise their tactility. When Chiron has his first sexual encounter with Kevin (played progressively by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), there is a shot of his fingers grasping at the sand, and earlier when he and Kevin tousle on the football field, the shoots of tough, dry couch grass create a texture across the screen that reflects the stinging sunlight and gritty feeling of skin roughing against grass and dirt and the hard hot body of another boy.
Jenkins grew up in Liberty City, where the film is set, and this knowledge of place leads Moonlight’s look. Spaces are wide open. Grass is a strong, dusky green, sand a pale dirty brown. Colour is used both to construct an emotional space and to complement the darker skin tones. Rooms are green and blue. Backgrounds are kept light. Watching it I wanted to hold the film up to everyone who has ever argued that black skin is “just harder to light” as if it’s a simple fact and not a blatantly racist remark, and scream “LOOK”. Jenkins has described the colour as establishing the mood of the film and the degree of light and saturation shifts with the tone. Interspersed between the three stages of Chiron (child, teenager and man) is an image, a dream or memory of Paula, lit by a shock of rainbow light spilling from her bedroom. She is screaming in slow motion and the image is repeated in Chiron’s sleep so that it becomes part nightmare, part despairing vision of familial love. This is one of the film’s complexities. No matter how fractious his relationship with Paula, Chiron always feels the pull of familial entanglement.
There are no white characters in Moonlight, and it’s a relief to watch the film’s bodies negotiate the world and each other without the imposition of comparative whiteness. Rather than making the film seem unrealistic, it gives the audience space to be properly with the characters and allows the film to explore nuances that might otherwise be dulled.
At the end of the film, Chiron makes the long drive back from Georgia to Miami, ending up in Kevin’s diner. Kevin cooks for him as Teresa did, watching him eat, using – with love – the food to get him to talk. Later, in Kevin’s apartment, there is no outpouring of love, no triumphant fulfilment of desire, no unearned cinematic catharsis. Just two men, fumbling their way toward whatever they can manage. In the film’s final gesture of respect, we leave them there. It is their story.
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